SKOWHEGAN — The U.S. trade representative’s visit this week to the New Balance shoe factory in Norridgewock will come at a crucial time for the company’s 900 jobs in Maine, state officials said Monday.

State Reps. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, and Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the message they heard Sunday at an international trade meeting in Leesburg, Va., was that protections for the footwear jobs are endangered.

A free-trade pact, the Transpacific Partnership, is an 11-nation agreement that’s under negotiation, in theory, to create jobs in the United States by increasing exports of industrial goods, agricultural products and textiles to parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

The agreement, however, could lift some tariffs, or import duties, on goods including athletic footwear, making imported, foreign-made shoes cheaper to buy than those made in the United States and hurting American workers.

Treat and McCabe said they hope Thursday’s visit by the trade representative, Ambassador Ron Kirk, will ease their concerns.

“Based on a statement we got back from (David Walker) the chief New Zealand negotiator, we came away quite concerned that, in fact, the agreement could be on track to phase out footwear tariffs,” Treat said Monday in a conference call with reporters. “I feel that it’s very important to be sitting down and meeting with the ambassador when he is in Maine and to strongly advocate Maine jobs and U.S. jobs by maintaining these tariffs to really ensure fair trade.”

McCabe said his presentation Sunday gave him a global audience to highlight the importance of New Balance jobs and the estimated 3,000 support jobs in materials and shipping across the country.

Meeting with Kirk, he said, will illustrate the shoe company’s commitment to the community as well. McCabe said he and Treat are concerned that there will be “an expiration” of the tariffs on footwear.

“His visit is actually vital for him to recognize how important these jobs are and how innovative New Balance is,” McCabe said during the conference call.

Treat agreed, saying she and McCabe are the “squeaky wheel” that will get the grease of national attention about commodities continuing to be made in America.

Negotiating members in the Transpacific agreement are the United States, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and Brunei.

Treat said she, McCabe and New Balance company officials, including president and CEO Rob DeMartini, want to meet with Kirk to show him the implications of removing import tariffs.

New Balance employs about 900 people in Maine at factories in Norridgewock, Oxford and Skowhegan.

McCabe and Treat also emphasized the importance of reinforcing the “Made in America” brand, including enforcing the Berry Amendment, which requires the Department of Defense to buy certain products from American companies.

New Balance officials want to make sure the law applies to footwear. It already applies to food, clothing, fabrics, stainless steel and some tools.

Congress established the domestic purchasing mandate in 1941, and for decades the military complied by issuing American-made uniforms, including athletic footwear, to American troops.

In recent years, however, the Department of Defense has circumvented the policy by issuing cash allowances to soldiers to buy their own training shoes.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at: [email protected]