March 11, 2010

Biddeford mill closingCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE

NOEL K

— By . GALLAGHER

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Range operator Larry Dumont stacks folds of Vellux blanket material in a wheeled tub Tuesday, February 12, 2008, at the WestPoint Home, Inc. mill, in Biddeford.

Jack Milton

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Boxed Vellux blankets headed for JC Penny and Sam's Club are stored in a warehouse in the 13 Mill building Tuesday, February 12, 2008 at the WestPoint Home, Inc. mill, in Biddeford.

Jack Milton

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Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — WestPoint Home, the last textile mill in Biddeford, is shutting down after 159 years, company officials announced Friday. The factory's 121 employees will be laid off in early June.

''It's the end of a fine, fine era,'' said George ''Pete'' Lamontagne, a Biddeford city councilor who has worked at WestPoint for 37 years. ''We were fortunate that we were able to last this long.''

Biddeford's is one of three plants that will close, the New York-based WestPoint announced Friday. Just last year, WestPoint was turning out about 7,000 blankets a day for retailers such as J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart.

''It's a very sad time,'' said Nancy Golden, the company's vice president of marketing. ''We've know these people a long time, and we really appreciate their service.''

The Biddeford employees were notified of the closure in a five-minute meeting Friday morning, Lamontagne said.

Workers, who generally earn between $15 and $17 an hour, will be laid off between June 5 and June 19, and they will receive one week's severance for every year they've worked at the company.

Lamontagne, who is on the union's executive board, said the workers were relieved to hear about the severance pay.

''We weren't expecting to get much of anything. We were expecting maybe three years of severance,'' Lamontagne said. ''The news was good enough to tamper down the people a bit, and some of the people who were going to speak probably didn't because of that.''

Still, it was a tough day.

''Some of the ladies were already crying before they even got to the meeting,'' Lamontagne said, noting that most of the employees are women.

It's also a family shop. Many workers, such as Lamontagne, have been there 30-plus years and are the children and grandchildren of lifelong WestPoint workers, going back to when it was known as West Point-Pepperell Inc.

The company began as the Pepperell Co. in 1845 in Biddeford and built its first mill there in 1850. At the turn of the century, it employed more than 1,000 people.

It later became WestPoint Stevens, which went into bankruptcy in 2003. The company emerged from bankruptcy and changed its name to WestPoint Home after Carl Icahn, an investor who gained a reputation as a corporate raider after his hostile takeover of TWA in 1985, bought it for $703 million.

The plant has been a mainstay in town, deeply woven into the identity and culture of this once-thriving mill town. It even housed what is believed to be the first mosque in America, established by Albanian Muslims who came to work at the mill.

''All my family worked there -- my mom, my dad, my grandparents, all my aunts and cousins. They worked there and retired there,'' Lamontagne said.

Golden said the shutdown in Biddeford is largely due to a drop in demand for its sole product, the Vellux blanket made of flocked material.

''The flocked foam business has declined measurably over the last five years,'' Golden said. ''And due to the challenges of competition, there is financial pressure to make our products more efficiently and less expensively.''

As the first shift let out at 3 p.m., Mayor Joanne Twomey was standing at the gate in the rain to talk to the workers.

''It was really nice to have the mayor there. You could see it in people's faces that they really appreciated it,'' Lamontagne said.

City officials note that although the layoffs are bad news, they have been moving forward on developing the 32-acre mill district for a long time.

''We've been seeing this coming for the last 15 years or so,'' City Manager John Bubier said. ''The bad news is that 121 people lost their jobs. The good news is that there is a significant amount of work being done around the mill, and we are in a good position. We are now in full redevelopment mode.''

Physically and strategically, the WestPoint Home factory is at the center of city officials' and developers' vision for converting the city's complex of old textile mills into a neighborhood of housing and commercial space.

It occupies at least 30 percent of the 1.75 million square feet of mill space in the district and controls several key parking facilities and access points linking downtown Biddeford to the mill district.

Next door to the largely vacant WestPoint Home factory is North Dam Mill, which has blossomed in the past several years. Largely vacant just three years ago, it now is home to about 125 residents in loft apartments and more than 40 businesses, from cafes and yoga studios to furniture manufacturers.

''We now have the opportunity to really open our minds and try to turn it around,'' Bubier said of the entire mill district.

In general, New York-based WestPoint Home has struggled because of changes in the U.S. textile industry. The evolution of textile quotas was the driving force behind the company's decision to close the other two plants, in Elkin, N.C. (134 workers) and Chipley, Fla. (326 workers).

The move leaves WestPoint with a plant in Greenville, Ala.

News of the shutdown wasn't entirely unexpected, Lamontagne said. The company that emerged from bankruptcy in 2005 has cut shifts and work since then.

''First we lost our third shift, then our second,'' Lamontagne said. ''Then we started losing lines -- we had three lines running, and they dropped one -- and we all said, 'Oh, my God, this does not look good.' ''

The closure also is bound to affect nearby businesses.

''Right before their shifts, they come in and get coffee,'' said Peter DiPietrantonio, an owner of Three D's Variety store across the street from the mill. ''It hurts everyone. It's too bad it had to happen.''

At Reilly's bakery on Main Street, there's a regular morning mix of WestPoint workers and retirees who gather for coffee and donuts.

''It's the social high point of our day,'' Lamontagne said.

Owner Mike Reilly, whose family has run the bakery since 1910, said he calls the regulars ''his cousins.'' He lamented the closing of the plant.

''It will affect us,'' he said. ''It's just terrible, and I really feel bad for the people being laid off, because there's no place hiring.''

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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20090403_WestPointMill

Gordon Chibroski

  


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