Thunder Bay

Minnesota businesses ready to welcome Canadians when U.S. border reopens

Just over 19 months ago, many people from northwestern Ontario thought very little about crossing the U.S. border to head stateside.

Border crossing to U.S. slated to reopen for non-essential travel in November

Jaime Spry, manager at Ryden's Border store, says the reopening of the U.S. border to Canadians is great news for the businesses that rely on Canadian traffic. (Facebook/Ryden's Border Store)

Just over 19 months ago, many people from northwestern Ontario thought very little about crossing the U.S. border to head stateside.

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly halted cross-border traffic, prompting questions over how long it would be until Canadians could once again return to the U.S.

In November, Canadians will once again be able to travel south, at a land or ferry crossing, for non-essential travel. Exact details on the opening, including the date, and testing requirements are still being determined. The move comes after Canada opened its border to American citizens in August.

"Oh, it's amazing," said Jaime Spry, manager at Ryden's Border Store in Grand Portage, Minn. 

The store is just south of the Pigeon River border crossing and is a popular place for Canadians to ship parcels.

"For the business in general, obviously, financially and the employees and the people that we've had here. We've all been on part time, we've been making it by, and now, at least there's the opportunity to at least see some of it come back in." 

Packages in Minnesota since early 2020

Spry said some packages have been at the store for more than a year and a half, and he will be pleased when they can be picked up. He said while the store is able to deal with its packages, space is at a premium, due to parcels being stacked up for so long.

Just a little further down Highway 61, Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County, said the lack of Canadian visitors in the past year has impacted Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, a few kilometres from the border.

"They employ a lot of Canadians as well, and they have a lot of day tripping traffic and a lot of overnight traffic as well. They've been really struggling without that population able to visit."

Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County, says businesses in Grand Marais and Grand Portage, Minn., are excited about the US border opening to Canadian visitors in November. (Visitcookcounty.com)

While northern portions of Cook County were most affected by a lack of Canadian visitors, Jurek said tourism has changed during the course of the pandemic.

"We were picking up traffic to the south of us. We didn't feel it as far as visitorship. I think when we really felt it is when we were able to bring back events, and we have some pretty significant cycling events, for instance. Those Canadian athletes were unable to get here."

However, last winter, there was a noticeable decline in visitors as the border was closed.

"Our partners at Lutsen Mountains, they have a pretty significant skiing population that comes from Thunder Bay, and that has been felt as well," Jurek said.

"We've just become so used to our northern neighbours be a part of our community for so long, it's just weird to not see people that we've come to know," said Kjersti Vick, Visit Cook County's director of marketing and public relations.

"They're not far away. If you're up in the Grand Portage area, you're closer to Canada than you are to Lutsen." 

Border communities heavily impacted

Vick said while summer tourism was still strong, because of more U.S. visitors travelling north once Canada reopened its ground borders to Americans, the impact was felt by local businesses. She said many Canadians still travel to the area in the winter, when some U.S. visitation drops off.

The commerce side, of course is definitely an aspect I support for my members, and we look forward to. It's a big part of our economy, but it's also the reunification of our communities. And that's of a greater importance- Tricia Heibel, International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

"The local retail business community really noticed the lack of Canadian visitors, especially in Grand Marais — it was a destination for a lot of visitors. They would make a point to stop and support a lot of the businesses in Grand Marais and in the Cook County area, either as this is the destination or on their way to another destination in Duluth, the Twin Cities, or beyond."

Border towns, like Fort Frances, Ont., and International Falls, Minn., were heavily impacted by the closure. Often, people cross between the two communities, and countries, for regular errands.

"The commerce side, of course," said Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, "is definitely an aspect I support for my members, and we look forward to. It's a big part of our economy, but it's also the reunification of our communities. And that's of a greater importance."

Heibel said she considers Fort Frances to be a "sister city" that is virtually part of International Falls. Many people who live in the towns have family on both sides of the border.

"There are certain community aspects that we share that are intertwined. We have the movie theatre, they have the gymnastics club that our kids participate in. There are different aspects of life that we share as two small communities.

"When you live in a border community it's weird to not go across," Vick said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Walters

Former CBC reporter

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff worked in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario.

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