Town's plight mirrored in GNP loss
By Diana Bowley, Of the NEWS Staff - DEXTER - More than a year ago, Beverly Drew's callused hands pushed leather strips under a machine that molded them into shoe insoles.Today, those same hands help move warm bodies in and out of showers and beds, and help soothe the aches and pains of residents at a local health care facility.
Although Drew, 48, makes less money today as a certified nursing assistant than she did on a production line at Dexter Shoe Co., she says she is far more content.
The Garland woman was one of about 500 shoe workers whose lives were disrupted when Dexter Shoe Co. ceased its manufacturing operations in this Penobscot County community at the end of 2001. About 100 warehouse workers and a handful of office staff reportedly still work at the company's plant on Railroad Avenue.
When the closing was announced, state, federal and local officials convened a few meetings in the town and were able to divert about $4 million in emergency financial assistance to help the former shoe workers find new employment or retraining. But little else was offered to the community.
There was no public outpouring of money and goods to help the nonunionized shoe workers, many of whom earned minimum wage or slightly higher, unlike the help recently offered from throughout the state for displaced Great Northern Paper Co. workers in the Katahdin region. Some in this town of nearly 4,000 year-round residents grumble about the attention being paid the displaced GNP workers.
"I'm glad they're getting help, but we could have used the same kind of help," former Dexter Shoe worker Frank Stanio said this week, referring to the 1,100 GNP workers who have been laid off by the bankrupt company.
Beyond feeling a little neglected, people in Dexter, however, offer a hopeful message to their GNP counterparts from their vantage point several months after their factory closed. Life does indeed go on.
Regaining a footing
The doomsday scenario some predicted never happened in Dexter. The town's population has not dropped significantly, according to town officials. Property values held stable for several months and have actually risen lately, according to local Realtors.
Still, the news is not all good. The unemployment rate jumped from 8.1 percent in the Dexter-Pittsfield market area before the shoe factory closed to 10.4 percent last year, according to state figures. With the Maine economy in the doldrums, many former Dexter Shoe employees still working on their education worry about what career opportunities they will find when they finish.
After jam-packing enough courses to get his associate's degree in a little more than a year, Stanio now wonders if he will be in any better position when he graduates in August than he was when he received his pink slip.
When he signed up for college, social services had the second-highest job availability in Maine. So Stanio set his mind on becoming a juvenile probation worker. He finds now, however, there is a hiring freeze on those positions. "That's why I went into the field, at least there would be jobs out there," he said.
Stanio said he can't afford to pursue a bachelor's degree because his 78 weeks of emergency employment benefits will run out in June, although the national emergency funds for training will extend through Dec. 31, 2003.
If there is still a need for training beyond the end of the year, a request will be made for an extension, said Mudgett. The federal funds also are helping family members affected by the shutdown. Mudgett said the transition center is now offering those individuals help with career counseling. There are about 100 openings for spouses who may have had to return to work because their partners lost their jobs, for older children who had to go to work to help the family, and for store employees whose jobs were affected by the closing of the manufacturing plant.
Town cinched belt
The message Dexter municipal officials have for those affected by GNP's problems is simple: Don't rely too much on the government. Be ready to work on your own.
Dexter town officials had expected more federal and state marketing help, but the town's plight soon became lost amid other issues. The quick economic turnaround officials had hoped for never materialized. Town Manager Robert Simpson badgered state officials for more than a year for help in securing a grant to pursue the purchase of one of Dexter Shoe Co.'s buildings. Local officials thought a town-owned building would be leverage to entice an industry to relocate or expand in Dexter to fill the void made by the shoe company, but the expense of repairing the building was later deemed too great.
"I think we made our first mistake ... we relied too heavily on the strong words of support we received from state, federal and regional officials and we lost critical time believing that our interests were being addressed at a higher level," Simpson said.
The loss of the shoe manufacturing plant, the town's largest employer, had as much of an impact as the paper company's announcement in the Millinocket area, Simpson said. "It has been, indeed, disappointing to see the magnitude of effort focused on relief for the Millinocket situation when compared to the loss of jobs and industry in Dexter," he said.
Calling Dexter's situation ancient history, Simpson said if anything positive happens it will be because the community makes it happen.
Life after shoes
Like Great Northern Paper Co., Dexter Shoe drew its employees from throughout the region, so the loss had an economic ripple effect, according to town officials. But predictions that the town would become a ghost town never materialized. There are no holes left in the community by local businesses that had to fold because of the layoffs.
In fact, rather than close their doors, a few local store owners expanded their product inventory. Tillson True Value and Just Ask Rental store owners Tom Tillson and Rick Pfirman figured if they were to continue as players in the next generation then they had to be more things to more people. "You either dig in and hold your own or go forward with new programs, which is what we elected to do," Pfirman said.
Recognizing that many people went out of town for electronics, business machines and supplies, Tillson and Pfirman saw a niche market and opened a Radio Shack. More than 350 people attended an open house for the new business earlier this month.
Pfirman, who also is vice president of Dexter Regional Development Corp., said his group is working on gentrifying the downtown to make it more appealing and is working to help entrepreneurs. The corporation is hoping to obtain some grants to purchase a downtown building that could serve as a small-business incubator site.
Real estate selling
According to Roger Brawn of Brawn Real Estate, there have been a large number of sales of more expensive homes. Eighty-six properties were sold in town last year, a significant increase over past years. Some properties that were sold are for seasonal homes, but others are primary homes purchased by people who were driven out of other communities because of higher taxes, he noted.
Over the last two years, 26 percent of Brawn's sales have been rural properties and 20 percent have been in-town homes. Twelve percent of the sales have been high-end homes, those valued at $80,000 or more, many of which are being purchased by people from throughout the country.
Simpson too, sees a shift in the composition of the town. "I think real estate in Dexter is probably one of the best deals in the state right now," he said. "We're seeing more and more people who reside in Bangor, Newport or Waterville moving to Dexter. There are positive things about living in rural Maine and people are looking at that, especially after 9-11."
Dexter will become a bedroom community for larger cities, unless the Legislature and government can really make Maine a much more profitable state for major manufacturers, the town official said.
Stanio, the former shoe worker, put it more strongly. Unless government officials do something to stop the out-migration of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries, Stanio said there is no hope for the state. "We're going to be the Florida of the North; retirement and kick the bucket, that's all we'll have," he said.
Whatever the future holds for Dexter, Simpson is optimistic that the town will survive.
"In the nearly year and a half since the announced closure of Dexter Shoe, I've seen the emotions of Dexter's citizens swing from despair to optimism and back again," the town official said. "Dexter's strength lies in the determination of its people to prevail in difficult times, and they will."
And just as the town continues to survive, so will the former shoe workers. "If we just put our minds to it, we will all make it to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Drew said.
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