Tom Tillson greeted a customer in his Dexter hardware store, gave directions to an employee, prepared an order and worked on payroll, all within a matter of minutes on a recent fall day.
It comes with the territory, said Tillson, 44, as he roamed aisles filled with bolts, nails and an assortment of other items at Tillson True Value and Just Ask Rental on Main Street.
As the fourth-generation co-owner, Tillson said, he wouldn’t expect life in his store to be any other way.
Yet the business, which opened in 1897, has survived because customer service has always come first, said Rich Pfirman, 62, Tillson’s partner and cousin-in-law.
“We never say no to the customer, or that’s what we try to do,” Pfirman said.
It’s also why the business has continued to thrive even after Dexter’s major employer, Dexter Shoe Co., announced in September 2001 that its local manufacturing operations would cease by year’s end. Some 800 jobs were affected.
Projecting flat growth for his store after the closing, Pfirman reluctantly worked on downsizing.
Those plans never had to be executed, however, because business took a sharp turn upward after the manufacturer closed, and it has shown steady growth every year since, he said.
Dexter went from being a town with one major manufacturer to a coveted bedroom community for Bangor, Waterville and beyond, according to Pfirman and others. Those families who left the town for new jobs were replaced by retirees and white-collar workers, with little change in the population base.
“I think part of it is the saturation of seasonal homes in New England,” Pfirman said. People from away are buying homes at reasonable prices, significantly upgrading them, then moving here, he said.
“We have become more of a bedroom community,” he noted.
Pfirman and others remember that announcement all too clearly.
Because of foreign competition, Dexter Shoe Co.’s parent company, H.H. Brown, based in Greenwich, Conn., said in 2001 it would move its manufacturing operations abroad.
Today, the former Railroad Avenue factory has been converted into a warehouse and distribution center for footwear, where about 100 people work, according to Jason Reed, H.H. Brown’s director of distribution. In addition, the company uses a building it owns on MacFarland Street for storage. The company has been investing in the buildings.
The loss of the manufacturing process, however, broadsided municipal officials, business owners and shoe company employees. After all, municipal officials and townspeople had been assured by company representatives that business was good, they said.
“We were pretty much blown away,” Pfirman recalled. “We didn’t have a clue of what the economic impact on the town and surrounding area would be.”
Dave Pearson, Dexter’s tax assessor, credits the housing market, the small businesses and small-town character for saving the community from the “brink of doom.” He admits he was one of the first to forecast dire consequences.
Not only did the manufacturer which had been a fixture in Dexter for more than 40 years bring in tax revenue, but its employees from the region also helped support local businesses, he said.
“The nation had its September 11 and Dexter had its September 11,” Pearson said. He pointed out that the shoe company had planned to make its announcement the same week as the 2001 terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York but delayed it a few days.
From the region 822 people, most of whom were 35 to 54 years old, lost their jobs when the company closed its plants in Newport, Milo and Dexter. Of those, about 450 were principal wage earners, according to a state Department of Labor study.
“It was pretty grim. It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to start having tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street,’” Pearson recalled.
When then-Town Manager Robert Simpson informed him of the closing, Pearson said, his mind ticked off the problems the town would face: a loss in taxes, hundreds of people out of work, families relocating and leaving a glut of houses with lower values on the market, a smaller school system, and local businesses in financial distress.
“I was pretty convinced we were going to enter into a great depression,” Pearson said.
That didn’t happen. In fact, the economy in the town of about 3,900 has thrived.
Some apartment owners may have felt a pinch by the shoe company’s decision, but, oddly enough, the real estate market improved, and properties remained on the high end, according to Pearson.
A couple of small businesses that catered to the industry closed, but others grew in sales, he said. Neither was the loss in the tax base as severe as anticipated nor was the decline in school enrollment as much as expected.
Despite the loss of the town’s major manufacturer, there were those still willing to invest in the community.
“I see opportunity, and I’m not afraid to take a chance,” John Chappell, 65, said of his opening a new tavern called the Watering Hole on Water Street about three years ago. “I see good things because the space and a readily available work force is there.”
It was actually by chance that the Rhode Island man came to Dexter in the first place. Chappell, who owns a similar tavern in his home state, said an acquaintance sold him a lot on Lake Wassookeag in Dexter.
“I didn’t even know where Dexter was at the time,” he recalled. When Chappell arrived to look at the lot in the middle of a snowstorm in January 1999, he said, he liked what he saw and returned to build a home on the property.
During one of his return visits, Chappell spied a “For Sale” sign on the shoe company’s 120,000-square-foot former warehouse and retail store.
Concluding that there was a spark of economic growth ready to ignite, Chappell said, he bought the property and renovated much of the first floor. Aware that the owner of nearby Rubin’s Pub was interested in selling the business, Chappell bought it and relocated it to the former factory, bringing all six employees along.
“The best thing that happened was the shoe company left; eventually there will be smaller businesses filling the gap,” Chappell said.
He admittedly is banking on some of those businesses settling in his building. Toward that end, he touts the qualities of Dexter to every person he meets, he said.
Chappell is not alone. Perhaps the biggest cheerleaders for the town are the Dexter Regional Development Corp., of which Pearson is a member, and Town Manager Judy Doore.
“Every opportunity that presents itself for information about our community and the quality of life we enjoy and the labor market we believe we have, we take full advantage of,” Doore said in an interview.
Having a nonmunicipal economic development corporation composed of volunteers who hold full-time jobs elsewhere has made it difficult to recruit industry, Doore acknowledged.
“It’s been a very slow process,” she said. “We feel like we’re in a stagnant position, and that’s certainly not anyone’s fault.”
Judy Craig, president of the development corporation, is the first to say the town should have an economic development director, but the money for the job isn’t available.
The 15-member organization, which meets monthly, is trying to make the downtown more appealing and is working to help entrepreneurs, Craig said.
The members have researched a speculative building, pounded on doors, followed up on leads and promoted the town through special events such as Wild West Days and the Easter hat parade, she said.
“We focused our attention on making Dexter a place people want to be after Dexter Shoe closed,” Craig said.
Some people have told her that they relocated to the town because of the town’s offerings, which includes the Lake Wassookeag, a site for seasonal and year-round homes, she said.
Doore said she appreciates the efforts of the volunteer organization but that more work is needed. She said the town is working with Corinna, Newport and Eastern Maine Development Corp. to come up with a plan to promote land in the state Pine Tree Zone, which is an area designated for tax breaks to encourage business development.
“Economic development is a word that requires persistence and patience because it just doesn’t happen over night,” Doore said.
For example, Katahdin Regional Development Corp. 13 years ago built a speculative building that has remained vacant until now, she said.
Despite the fact that a large manufacturer has not yet moved to the community, growth is under way, Doore said.
“We are seeing lots of growth along the water, not only new structures but a conversion of buildings from seasonal to year-round,” she said. There have been several subdivision requests.
“People are coming – that speaks to the quality of life we have here,” she said.
Cruising the aisles of Tillson’s hardware store on Main Street on a recent fall morning, Matt Emerson of Garland said he could easily go to Corinth for his needs, but shops in Dexter instead.
“These guys go the extra mile, and they have everything,” Emerson said of Tillson’s.
Richard Clukey of Dexter, who was shopping on Main Street looking for parts for a pontoon boat, said he would rather shop locally. “I give them all the business I can,” he said.
Dexter is appealing because it offers quality services, including ambulance, police, fire protection, public works, schools, recreation, a golf course and an airport, Doore said. In addition, the town has a lake that is the public drinking water source, and it has its fixed businesses.
What is missing is light manufacturing, she said.
“Every obstacle provides an opportunity for change, and the obstacle of the shop closing was so devastating, but it has turned out to be an opportunity for folks to get further education, and it’s now up to us to bring in the jobs,” Doore said.
She said some 600 people received training or furthered their education after the shoe company closed.
That latter move wasn’t easy for Frank Stanio, 58, of Guilford, who works as an SAD 4 janitor in his hometown.
“It was scary because you had no security,” Stanio said. He and his wife, Christy, had worked for about three decades for Dexter Shoe Co.
Christy found a job with a Guilford manufacturer soon after her layoff, but Frank Stanio chose to further his education until the federal and state trade assistance provided to him and other shoe workers ran out.
Bitter after being told by his employer to show his foreign replacement how to do his assembling job in 2001, Stanio said that’s the thanks that hard-working employees got after “making a company.”
Looking back, however, Stanio said he believes it was for the best.
“The factory did me a favor in shutting down, to a certain extent, because I found out there are other things that I could do,” he said.
Two weeks after he lost his job, Stanio was enrolled at the University of Maine taking classes through the Interactive Television system in SAD 4. He managed to complete all but three courses for an associate degree in social services before the money dried up.
Needing a second income, Stanio took the janitor’s job, earning about half of what he made on piece work at his former job. The money is nice, but it doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, Stanio said, adding that he thinks he will continue to work as a janitor until he retires at 65.
“I want to finish my degree, but I also want to stay working with the kids,” he said as he emptied a trash can in a classroom.
According to the state study, 656 of Dexter Shoe Co.’s 822 workers found re-employment elsewhere in the state, the majority of which were in the fields of office and administrative support, health care and transportation.
That same study found it took some seven months for the average employee to find replacement work. When work was found, the overall average quarterly wages were lower than before layoff, according to the study.
While many of the employees had children in local schools, the closing has had minimal impact on the district’s enrollment, according to SAD 46 Superintendent Kevin Jordan. In October 2001, the district had an enrollment of 1,075 compared with an October 2006 enrollment of 1,051.
Jordan said Garland and Exeter, two communities in the district, have had growth in recent years. He also thinks that will occur in Dexter as well, aided a little by the proposed construction of an elementary-middle school that will be voted on in February.
Tax assessor Pearson also believes the town will grow, but in a good way.
“We’re a town that looks like a town,” unlike some communities dominated by big-box stores, he said.
The town has a land-use ordinance that targets areas for development but hasn’t outwardly encouraged big-box stores to move to the community.
Dexter people are constantly reminded by travelers, he said, that the town is special in that it retains a beauty that the commercialized towns have lost, and it retains a livable, affordable lifestyle that the gentrified towns have lost.
Businesses such as Tillson’s and area residents have played a key role in molding the town with those special qualities in mind, according to Pearson.
Store owner Pfirman is more succinct.
“What makes Dexter special are the people,” he said. Dexter residents rally together in the worst of times and help pull the town through, he said. “I can’t think of a better place to be.”