Local business leaders press Larsen for border relief

Published on Thu, Oct 4, 2001 by Jack Kintner

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Local business leaders press Larsen for border relief

By Jack Kintner

“We have to achieve a new balance between economy and security,” said U.S. representative Rick Larsen, meeting with Point Roberts and Blaine business owners last Saturday at Blaine Harbor. “In the discussions about border delays in congress it’s all about security, but out here and in Sumas and Lynden it’s about jobs. We have $1.4 billon in daily trade with Canada, and each year 200 million people cross the border. This meeting is about getting this going again.”

Larsen asked each of the 40 participants to respond in turn to a set of questions designed to find out how business conditions have changed since September 11.

Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic described lines of waiting trucks “stretching onto the freeway,” and said that both more money and staffing are obviously needed. “Beyond that, you might look at how the people are deployed there, what policies and procedures are used. Even prior to September 11, two to three hour delays on summer weekends had people wondering why just one or two lanes were open on the American side. Now people are wondering why we can’t respond to the security need by opening more lanes. It’s always been a problem and this has just made it worse.”

Mike Hill has a Chevron station in downtown Blaine, and his sister MaryLee runs the nearby Pastime Tavern that has been in their family for 34 years. Both said they feel the drop in Canadian business acutely.
Art Lawrenson, owner of the International Café a block south of the Pastime, agreed, saying that he doesn’t “feel very diplomatic today and I’m totally frustrated. I been here 40 years and have seen stuff come and go, and the federal government has created most of the problems you see here this morning. Let’s get some people to work at the Peace Arch to expedite the traffic. I’ve laid off 11 people in the last couple of weeks and so have others as I look around the room. Do what has to be done to speed the traffic up!”

Pat and Pat Alesse, owners of Birch Bay’s C Shop, spoke to the question of funding, saying. “They say they won’t expand the number of border guards because they don’t have the money? Neither do we! If we waited until we did before anticipating our summer business, we’d go broke.”
The 25 people attending the meeting from Point Roberts were determined to avoid border backups, over half coming by boat and the rest walking through at the Peace Arch crossing.

Jay Lewis, manager of the International Marketplace, Point Roberts’ only large grocery, said, “Our business is off 20 percent on weekdays and 30 percent on weekends. I’ve been at this store for four and a half years and in that time our business has gradually declined. This kind of drop on top of that could very easily wipe us out.”

Terrie LaPorte, who helped organize the meeting and who owns and operates Maple Meadow Bed and Breakfast, said, “My business is 100 percent off. Some people have said that they do not want two borders between them and their families in case this conflict isn’t over yet, so they need reassurances.” She provided Larsen with a sheaf of material that included letters from affected businesses, petitions and certifications of the length of border wait times.

“Our southbound crossings were averaging 3,000 vehicles from the first to the eleventh of September, but since then it’s down to 1,250 per day. In the first 11-day period there were 13 rejections but in the second only eight, and they were checking much more thoroughly. Security is an issue but we have to review the results and act reasonably,” said LaPorte.

Jane Woods’ husband works at the Lynden border crossing, and she spoke of what they had gone through since September 11. “You lost your PACE privilege over-night, but my husband’s shifts went from eight to 16 hours. And they have the guards doing things like night watchman duty at Lynden when the crossing closes from midnight to 8 a.m. It’s been stressful and difficult.”

Larsen said “The new federal homeland defense agency is focusing on anti-terrorism. It’s a good idea but more is needed long term, probably some re-organization. Right now four border agencies are represented by three different departments at the cabinet level and they do not always work well together in the field.”

The Blaine school district includes Point Roberts, and school district superintendent Gordon Dolman said heightened security has cut off Point families from their schools. “There are at least three instances so far where students have been sick or injured but parents living at the Point can’t get to the campus in a timely fashion. One mother was notified and came right down, and had to wait at the border, then picked up her child but in returning was passed by the afternoon school bus that gets to cut to the head of the line. She came down at 10:30 in the morning, so you can see how bad the delays are.”

Dolman has equipped the buses serving Point students with cell phones so parents can locate their children and learn of delays, and also has authorized nurses to escort ill students through the Peace Arch crossing on foot to be picked up by parents, avoiding back-ups. “We need access for parents from Point Roberts that is as quick and effective as the old PACE program,” Dolman said.

High school student Kyle Teutsch spoke of missing optional classes and activities because of the long border waits, sometimes being late for school even when he left home at 5 a.m. when he needed to drive himself. “And because of my activities I drive four or five times a week,” he said.
Other business owners continued to ask Larsen to re-open PACE or quickly find an alternative. Bob Brooks opened Marine Services in Blaine last year, and said “I invested here because I was certain that there’s a good economic future in the harbor. But with 70 percent of the boats in the harbor under Canadian ownership, we need PACE. I don’t understand why it can’t come back. Why do we have only one lane open? This is stupid, especially when we’re told that PACE can’t come back. It’s pulled the rug out from under us. We can not survive.”

State senator Georgia Gardner, D-Blaine, asked why there couldn’t be some kind of special sticker for people who live on one side of the border and work on the other.

Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Pam Christianson said, “An already bad situation was exacerbated by the security response to the attack. We need to get PACE back, in some form, to get people moving again.”

Ten-year Point resident Dave Niles, organizer of the meeting along with LaPorte, asked Larsen about the Nexus program that was recently given a trial run in Port Huron, Michigan. “It would require more extensive background checks and would cost more than the current PACE program,” said Larsen. “The technology involved is more advanced than that in use here, but shows promise of allowing one system to replace both CanPass and PACE. In terms of timing, it won’t be as soon as some of you would like, within weeks, but it will happen.”

Larsen had quietly taken notes as people presented their concerns. At the end, having extended the two-hour meeting for another 30 minutes, Larsen said, “Bottom line is that we’re headed for some kind of biometric technology such as reading your thumb or retina, or a transponder in your car or a smart card with your photo on it. The efforts to highlight the needs of the northern border are starting to bear some fruit, thanks in part to the northern border caucus in congress, co-chaired by U.S.

representative George Nethercutt, R-Spokane. With that group we are pushing to meet the need to get more staff in here for customs and INS and the technology in place as well to help these people do their jobs.”.

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