If you are looking for Maine’s shrinking manufacturing base, try China or Indonesia.

“And it’s not coming back,” says economist Charles Lawton, who spoke Thursday in Lewiston during the first Great Falls Forum of the 2007-2008 season. Lawton’s speech centered around where Maine’s economy now finds itself, two-thirds of the way through this century’s first decade.

The numbers aren’t pretty, starting with lower-than-the-national-average employment incomes, through higher-than-the-national-average unearned incomes (social services, military wages, etc.). Maine is getting older, getting poorer (on the average) and spends more than it can afford on education and health care.

(Government administration, too, but we knew this already.)

And jobs long equated with Maine are fleeing for greener global pastures. “Traditional” jobs, according to Lawton, have decreased by 20 percent since 1990, replaced by gains in health care, retail and service-based industries.

Almost every Mainer knows we have empty mills and crowded hospitals, but we shouldn’t count manufacturing out, not yet. Much evidence exists that manufacturing – a sector in which L-A has historically excelled – may have taken some punches but has plenty of punchcards left to thrive.

On Sept. 16, business reporter Carol Coultas described the resurgence of the Bates bedspread in Lewiston by Maine Heritage Weavers. The company’s founder is former Bates of Maine president Fred Lebel, who made a clever and obvious decision when Bates headed for Minnesota in 2001.

Lebel looked around and saw many experienced and talented craftsmen out of work, and decided they were the requisite raw material to continue business in Lewiston. His instinct has been rewarded; Maine Heritage Weavers has doubled its workforce and is now buying a new loom.

The company is now making bedspreads designed for Yale alumni. This is the definition of niche manufacturing; as a massive bedspread maker, Bates had trouble keeping pace with changing economic times. In this smaller iteration, success is being found one bedspread at a time, tagged “Maine Heritage Weavers,” Lewiston, Maine, U.S.A.

The company isn’t alone. Falcon Shoe has changed from making hundreds of footwear styles to one specialty: firefighter boots. And L.L. Bean has agreed to come to Lewiston to make a major piece of its signature boots.

This area still has strong, established manufacturers: Tambrands, Bell, Thomas Moser, Formed Fiber, etc. But L-A remembers when shoes and textiles were dominant; it’s why reunions of former millworkers are held annually, as tribute to those who made L-A a manufacturing center.

While those days might be done, the signature industries are far from finished.

Lawton, during his speech, said Maine’s economic future – if nothing changes – can be predicted by looking at “what’s happened over the past 15 years, and projecting it forward.”

We hope this means more growth of niche manufacturers, rooted in L-A’s historic industries.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.