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Bushmaster heads south

By Rachel Kurzius

On Friday, Dec. 10, Bushmaster Firearms International announced it was closing its Windham plant on March 31. Property owner Dick Dyke and local politicians began working to provide services to the 73 people who will lose their jobs and create new opportunities for employment in the area. Many of the employees have worked at the Windham plant for over 26 years.

Bushmaster, which was sold five years ago to private equity firm Freedom Group LLC, headquartered in North Carolina, a subsidiary of New York City hedge fund Cerberus, came to Windham in 1973. Freedom Group LLC has also acquired firearms manufactures Remington Arms Co., Parker Gun makers, Dakota Arms, H & R 1871 and Marlin Firearms.

Bushmaster, the leading supplier of AR15 rifles in the United States, did not notify anyone locally before making the decision to close the plant. The news came as a surprise to all involved, including Dyke, Governor John Baldacci, Representatives Bill Diamond, Gary Plummer and Mark Bryant, Windham Town Manager Tony Plante and others.

After the layoffs that have plagued the plant for the last year, whittling down workers from over 100 to the current 73, Diamond says that Baldacci asked Bushmaster if there was anything the state government could do to ensure that the company would stay open. Bushmaster assured Baldacci that everything was fine and the company did not need assistance.

Bushmaster did not consult state or municipal government before deciding to relocate the manufacturing plant. Though Bushmaster management has not confirmed this, sources say that Bushmaster manufacturing will be consolidated to a plant in N.C.

David Sawyer, the Windham Tax Assessor, says that the town of Windham will lose $5,022.25 of tax revenue from personal property taxes on the business equipment in the plant. However, the larger chunk of taxes from the factory, the $30,412.16 Land and Buildings Tax on the manufacturing space, will still come into the town as long as the industrial park exists.

Why did it close?

According to Windham Economic Development Director Tom Bartell, Freedom Group has told the state ''It was a matter of production and capacity.'' Accounts from Plummer, Diamond and Dyke confirm this reasoning.

While some have been quick to blame this past summer's controversy between Bushmaster and residential neighbors over the noise of arms testing for the sudden closing, Plummer claims this is not the case.

Baldacci would like to do an ''autopsy'' on the factory to determine the precise reason for its closing, but according to Plummer, ''It seems to boil down to consolidate and move. It doesn't seem like there's much we could have done to prevent this.''

Diamond has one key question, though. ''Why didn't (Bushmaster) bring them up here to Maine, instead of bringing the production in Maine down to North Carolina?''

Other than headquarters for Freedom Group being in North Carolina, this main question has yet to be thoroughly answered. Bushmaster would not reply to queries by press time.

What will happen

to the employees?

While a couple of employees have been offered jobs at the plant in N.C. should they choose to relocate, most of the 73 employees will be left jobless at the end of March. Diamond related a story of a man who stopped him while he was jogging and told him, ''I work at Bushmaster. My mom works there, my grandmother works there. We're all scared.''

Diamond, Plummer and Windham officials have all stressed a rapid response team including the Windham legislative team, Baldacci, Governor-elect Paul LePage, the Maine's Economic and Community Development team, Department of Labor and others, have swiftly started working together. Baldacci has committed that all state resources will be available to help employees.

''The Town of Windham always has stepped up to make sure the people of Windham are taken care of,'' said Bartell. According to Bartell, a good working relationship with Adult Education and Workforce Development will be a key factor in retaining workers.

Bartell scheduled a Thursday meeting at Bushmaster with the Maine Department of Labor to educate employees about three important issues: filing for unemployment, career services and healthcare options.

''The best we can do is work to bring jobs into Windham,'' Bartell said.

Bushmaster would not release information concerning how many employees were from Windham or any other specific municipality, but Plummer, Diamond and Dyke all said with confidence that almost all of the workers were from the Sebago Lakes Region.

The ripple effect of Bushmaster's closing will be felt beyond the 73 workers and their families. Plummer remembered, in a tour of the facility he took earlier in the year, the interconnectedness between the factory and other area businesses.

''During the process, they would ship out guns to various machine shops for testing. Those shops are going to lose a lot of business. The factory was critically important to the area.'' Plummer also pointed out that the transportation networks will lose business.

''The message is that we're all in this together,'' said Diamond, noting that bringing several levels of government together with the private sector will lead to success.

Dick Dyke, the owner of the industrial plant that houses Bushmaster, has committed himself to finding another business or multiple businesses to provide employment to these 73 individuals, most of whom he hired himself during the many years he owned Bushmaster.

''It's got to come from the private sector,'' he said. ''The state doesn't have the resources to really do much at this time other than help with job retraining and unemployment, but the real jobs are going to come from the private sector.''

What will happen to the space?

The Bushmaster industrial plant has over 60,000 square feet of space that will become available when the lease is up on July 1. While one company utilizes the space now, the set-up of the industrial park makes it possible to house a variety of different businesses. The plant consists of five buildings, each of which houses ten self-contained units.

''Each building is a story in itself and that's how we built it,'' explained Dyke.

When entrepreneur Dyke bought Bushmaster out of bankruptcy in 1973, he moved the failing company from Bangor down to Windham. At first, Bushmaster was housed in only one of the five buildings.

''One building was for the guns, another was a poker chip manufacturing business and the others were buildings housing small businesses, people building candles and making cats. The people who would otherwise tinker away in their garage,'' recalled Dyke.

Bushmaster's growth meant that these smaller-scale entrepreneurs were pushed out, often back to their garages.

At age 72, Dyke sold Bushmaster to Freedom Group, ''in the hopes that the company would continue to grow itself in Maine, but that didn't happen...The Freedom Group has to do what they have to do...it's their choice to do what's in the best interests of their corporations...but now we're focused on what we can do next. I'm actively looking at what I can do to get these people new jobs with good benefits.''

Dyke has committed to investing in potential new tenants of the property.

''I'm still in the process of thinking...The big question will be if I want to rent the various units out of the building individually to encourage young entrepreneurs, become a landlord but also a partner. Or, we could go out and build another company...It'll probably end up being a combination of the two.''

 
     

Some of your comments

 

It is a joke that no one saw this move coming. As far back as March of 2008, Windham's offer to keep Bushmaster and it's 100 jobs here paled in comparision to other options. This move happened in large part because Windham's town manager and others got lazy and sat back thinking/hoping this event would never happen. As a councilor, I got involved in discussions with Bushmaster to keep them in Windham. A majority of the council, Muir, Wisecup and others could have cared less and offered no energy to this effort. Without majority support, I could offer little to compete for Bushmaster's business. I predicted back then that Bushmaster would be out of Windham within 36 months and here we are....... Hopefuly, Windham and Maine in general will now become more resolute when it comes to not only attracting but retaining key employers as well. Kaile Warren

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