WILTON — Workers cried when G.H. Bass & Co. announced plans to close its shoe manufacturing plant, the largest employer and taxpayer in this western Maine town.
“It was shocking. People were standing there and crying and they seemed to be in shock. You could tell it was a genuine reaction,” said 54-year-old machinist R.A. Perez, one of the 350 Bass employees who will lose jobs.
Bass’ parent company, Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., will transfer manufacturing to Puerto Rico and other undetermined locations as it phases out the plant between April and July.
G.H. Bass’ warehouse and distribution center in Wilton, which provides about 130 jobs, will remain open, as will Bass’ headquarters in South Portland, where about 250 people work.
Closing the mill and consolidating some its warehouses will save the company $40 million over the next three years, Van Heusen Chairman Bruce Klatsky said in a report to financial analysts.
Van Heusen, which had sales of $413 million during the third quarter, owns the Izod and Gant clothing lines.
The plant closing will end Bass shoemaking in Maine and New England and end its 122-year manufacturing presence in Wilton.
“Business has been off badly in the last year,” said Gus Weill, spokesman for Van Heusen.
“As a result, the pressure of extremely expensive manufacturing in the Northeast became too great to bear. The company has taken every other step it conceivably could, but the question now is quite literally the viability of the company,” Weill said.
Amid these troubles, which were compounded by foreign competition, Bass last month fired its president, Daniel N. Reardon.
Town Selectman Norm Spencer said news of the planned closing, which was announced Wednesday to employees, hit like a bombshell. Bass is the largest taxpayer in this town of about 4,200 people.
“You think of Wilton and you think of Bass Shoe,” said Spencer.
Gov. Angus King said that, despite the planned closing, Maine’s overall employment picture is bright.