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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ecklund’s aid bill

Legislation would provide much-needed help for border and fire-impacted businesses

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As if the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic haven’t been strain enough for many North Country businesses, the impact of last year’s fire-related closures in the Boundary Waters, as well as the effective closure of the U.S.-Canadian border going on nearly two years now, has piled the misery even higher.
Several economic development officials, a tribal chairman, and North Country business owners testified in a state House committee on Feb. 16 in support of legislation that would create the Canadian Border Counties Economic Relief Program. If passed by the Legislature, it could provide a much-needed shot in the arm for area outfitters, hotels, shops, and other businesses that have been impacted by recent closures.
The legislation (HF 2811), authored by Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls would provide up to $15 million in funding to help businesses in the region that can demonstrate significant losses as a result of the closures. Local wilderness outfitters, who saw what had looked to be an excellent summer whither in the face of widespread Boundary Waters closures, would be among the potential beneficiaries with both loans and grants.
While some businesses in the region have done fine, even thrived, during the pandemic, certain businesses, particularly those that rely on cross-border traffic, have been severely impacted. Among the hardest hit is the Grand Portage Band, located at the very tip of the Arrowhead. The band had just completed an expensive renovation of their hotel resort and casino when COVID hit. Given their location, about 45 miles southwest of Thunder Bay, Canadian guests have traditionally made up about 80-85 percent of the band’s customer base. When COVID arrived and the border shut down, their business dropped 90 percent, according to tribal chairman Robert Deschampe. It has yet to recover. While the border is technically open, the restrictions in place are onerous enough, particularly for discretionary crossings, that Canadian visitors are staying away.
It’s much the same at International Falls, where border crossings fell from nearly 400,000 in 2019, to barely 80,000 in 2020. Many retailers in that border city rely on Canadians for most of their sales, so the disappearance of Canadian shoppers has devastated retail stores, gas stations, medical providers, and restaurants. The fall-off in American-based traffic coming through town on the way to the border has also hit businesses hard. That undoubtedly contributed to the closure of the community’s long-time newspaper, The Journal, among nearly a dozen other businesses.
Imagine the impact, as well, at Ryden’s Border Store, a gas station and duty-free shop located about a quarter-mile from the border crossing near Grand Portage. The Ryden family has owned and operated the store since 1947, but they’ve never experienced the kind of impact the border closure had on their business, which went from a busy and thriving enterprise to nearly a ghost town when the border closed. They, like many of the businesses that would potentially benefit from this bill, have been devastated by events that have clearly been beyond their control.
It’s hardly unusual for the state to pitch in with financial assistance under such circumstances. In 2016, for example, when the walleye fishery on Mille Lacs Lake collapsed, the Legislature approved a $3.6 million aid package, including grants and loans, to help resort owners and other businesses in that area, who were severely affected by the steep decline in anglers. Ecklund’s bill is modeled on that earlier relief package.
For those businesses truly affected by these closures, Ecklund’s bill would be a godsend. At the same time, the closures last year didn’t affect every business in the region. In fact, some did very well and, quite frankly, don’t need additional support from taxpayers. Fortunately, the measure would require that businesses document a financial decline from 2019 of at least ten percent. Businesses that have truly been hurt by the closures will have no difficulty documenting that harm. Which is why we urge the Legislature to adopt Ecklund’s measure.

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