SKOWHEGAN — U.S. Department of Defense officials are scheduled to meet at the Pentagon on Thursday with representatives from New Balance and other domestic footwear manufacturers to discuss requirements for the sale of athletic shoes to the military.
The Defense Department announced in April that it will require new military recruits to use a cash footwear allowance to purchase athletic shoes that are compliant with the Berry Amendment – a law that requires the Pentagon to buy certain products, including food and clothing, from American companies.
That requirement would include shoes made in three New Balance factories in Maine –Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway – once they become available in the marketplace, according to a statement Wednesday from the Washington office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
In announcing the new policy, the Defense Department said that all shoes must undergo a wear test before being certified as available to new recruits. But manufacturers say that to comply, they still need more information from the DOD.
The problem, according to Matt LeBretton, vice president of public affairs at New Balance, is that defense officials have yet to release details of what sorts of wearability criteria and guidelines will be required to make the shoes military ready.
“When they made the policy change in April they required wear testing for any footwear, but have yet to tell us what type of testing that will be or where or how it would take place,” Le- Bretton said by phone Wednesday. “It’s almost a little bit of a sleight of hand. They made a policy change, but then didn’t tell us how we can perform to actually begin working with the military to sell domestically made shoes to recruits. So we requested this meeting to ask them to put meat on the bones and let us know when we can start production of mass quantity of these shoes.”
New Balance employs about 900 people in Maine and 3,000 across the country.
Congress first established the domestic purchasing mandate – the Berry Amendment – in 1941, and for decades the military complied by issuing American-made uniforms, including athletic footwear, for American troops. But citing a decline in domestic shoe manufacturing in recent years, the Defense Department skirted the policy by issuing cash allowances to soldiers – about $80 each – for their own purchase of training shoes, which meant the soldiers could buy footwear manufactured outside of the United States.
New Balance sees the policy change as the closing of a loophole in the law and a move that benefits U.S. manufacturers.
LeBretton said once New Balance officials know what is required of them to make shoes for the military, it will mean dozens of new jobs in Maine. The shoes would be sold to the soldiers who would still receive the footwear allowance rather than through contract bidding by various companies, which could lead to a possible resurgence in shoe manufacturing across the country.
“What Sen. Collins and others have done to date – to get the department to actually issue a policy change – is like getting the 11th commandment written,” LeBretton said. “It’s a brutally difficult thing to do. We’ve made a lot of progress, and we are extraordinarily close to the end goal here, but we just need the Department of Defense to get to that next step.”
The Norridgewock and Skowhegan factories in Somerset County each employ about 350 people and together produce about 7,100 pairs of shoes a year. New Balance, which is based in Boston, also has two production centers in Massachusetts. According to its website, 25 percent of its shoes sold in the U.S. are produced in the United States, making it one of the country’s largest producers of athletic footwear.
Shoes produced at the factories are made from at least 70 percent U.S.-produced materials, complying with fair trade law, LeBretton said earlier this year. To comply with the Berry Amendment, 100 percent of the materials must come from the U.S.
On June 9, Sens. Collins and Angus King sent a letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work urging the Department of Defense to publish guidelines by which companies can offer Berry Amendment-compliant athletic footwear to be tested. Collins has asked Work to establish meetings between defense officials and New Balance. The department also agreed to include representatives from New Balance’s supplier base, such as those producing products for the sole.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, also has visited New Balance factories in Skowhegan and Norridgewock in order to get the Defense Department change in policy enacted.
New Balance recently unveiled a sneaker prototype that could become standard issue in boot camp and spell an end to the cash allowances that let recruits buy foreign-made shoes, according to an article published in Military Times.
Details about the shoemaker’s 950v2 athletic shoe were released after lawmakers visited a New Balance factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Aug. 19.