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A proudly American shoe company ships jobs to China

Chaco Sandals in Paonia, Colo., succumbs to global market forces and lays off 45 full-time workers, silencing a manufacturing plant – and a town.

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Sole of a company: Members of the ‘combine team’ box up Chaco sandals. At least 45 full-time positions were lost when the Paonia, Colo., company moved manufacturing operations overseas.

JT Thomas

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Paonia, Colo.

On the Chaco factory floor in western Colorado, workers are head down at sewing machines and sole trimmers – stitching, gluing, and shaping pair after pair of rubber-bottomed river sandals. The high-ceilinged room hums and buzzes with activity, as it does every day, but today is different. For most of these employees, today feels something like a graduation and something like a funeral.

Since company founder Mark Paigen invented the sandals in his spare room almost 20 years ago, Chacos have caught on among river guides, kayakers, and weekend warriors, and the company has grown from a one-man operation to a 145-person business with a catalog of styles and an international clientele. Through it all, the sandals have been designed, made, and proudly worn here in tiny Paonia.

The company’s steel-sided headquarters and factory sit just outside town, next to soccer fields and within sight of the western edge of the Rockies. The setting, tucked between the mountains and the desert, is starkly gorgeous, but as the saying goes, one can’t eat the scenery. The county’s per capita income hovers just above $17,000, and blue-collar jobs with benefits – like most of those on the Chaco factory floor – aren’t easy to find here.

So the sandal builders at Chaco tend to stay around – Cheryl Burch, the leader of the “glue team,” has been with the company more than 13 years – and their camaraderie is palpable, their ribbing and bickering like that of an extended family. The tags on the completed sandals read “Made with pride” – sometimes even “Made with love” – “in Colorado, U.S.A.

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