A FULL COMMUNITY CENTER in Lancaster, Minn. was the site of a meeting where area business owners and residents shared their concerns about the Lancaster border crossing hours changing from a closing time of 10 p.m. to 4 p.m. Comments are still being accepted online so if you did not make it to the meeting you can send an email with your concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Linda Andersen
Cars lined both sides of Lancaster’s main street at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 6th. People entering the community center eagerly signed a petition protesting changes in hours at the Lancaster Port of Entry. A fairly large group of people was already seated in the building. By the 7:00 p.m. meeting time it was a packed house with standing room only and the people kept coming.
Four representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection seated at the front of the room faced a united group of concerned citizens. Jason Schmelz, Area Port Director out of the Pembina office, was present as was Michael Freeman, Assistant Director of Field Operations for the Seattle Field Office. Both Schmelz and Freeman addressed the group. Mary Meyers was also present from the Pembina port in addition to David Moorhead of the Roseau port.
“I don’t take these decisions lightly,” said Mr. Schmelz as he opened the meeting and went on to explain his conviction that a 33 percent decline in traffic since 2013 warrants a reduction in hours at the port. He added that 15 ports across the country have also seen an adjustment in hours. He assured the group that hours could be extended during a natural disaster such as a flood or during large community events.
“We’re listening to the feedback,” stated Freeman, who reiterated that sentiment a couple of times during the evening, possibly giving the concerned citizens some hope of changing the minds of Customs officials.
Freeman went on, however, to express his perspective, saying a 47 percent decrease in traffic at the port has occurred since 2011. He went on to state that between 4:00 and 10:00 p.m. (the hours of operation which would be eliminated under the new plan) an average of two trucks and 19 vehicles pass through the port. “We have facilities to the east and west that can accommodate them 24 hours per day,” he stated.
He went on to talk of the $75,000 to $80,000 savings per officer (not including overtime) for the Lancaster port that would result if officers were moved to busier ports.
Several men with political affiliation sat in the front row and each took his turn to express a few words of support for the citizens’ perspective. State Senator Mark Johnson was present as was State Representative Dan Fabian. Former Senator LeRoy Stumpf spoke on behalf of Representative Collin Peterson. Andy Martin stood in for Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Carson Oueletta represented Senator Al Franken.
Representative Fabian read a statement which he said expressed the ideas of both him and Senator Johnson. He read, in part, “In the seven years I have represented the great people of District 01A no issue has generated the volume of local engagement that this pending action has! Over the past two weeks, far and away, the number one topic has been the reduction in port of entry hours at Roseau and Lancaster. It has even surpassed upcoming deer hunting season…The potential negative impacts in so many ways are far too great! Areas of impact include but are not limited to – jobs, commerce and trade, tourism, recreation, healthcare, just to name some.”
Stumpf read a letter on behalf of Representative Peterson. The group clapped heartily when he read, “While having this Town Hall is welcomed, it should have been done long before U.S. Customs made their decision to reduce service hours at the Lancaster and Roseau Ports of Entry.” The letter further stated, “Canadians who visit Minnesota fill up at our gas stations, eat at our restaurants, camp at our campgrounds, play at our golf course, fish at our lakes, and spend money along the way. If one of Customs’ goals is to serve the community, then I believe we should be encouraging tourism and the economic stimulus that comes with it rather than putting up obstacles…The benefits of shifting Customs personnel and reducing hours simply don’t outweigh the negatives.”
The concerned citizens were welcomed to offer comment, which brought new perspectives to the issue. Ken Hunter asked, “Why did you spend billions building the new building?” He also brought up the possibility that difficulty in recruiting officials to this part of the country could be influencing the issue.
Freeman seemed to indicate that the latter could be true when he commented, “We’re not getting the qualified applicants to apply for the positions.”
On the subject of personnel, Lancaster mayor, Michael Olson, suggested using border patrol officials to also staff the port. Freeman’s response was that the training for the two positions is completely different.
George Hanson suggested staffing the port with fewer officers. Freeman indicated that safety concerns require three officers to be on staff. “Officer safety is paramount,” he said.
Apparently the waits at other ports can be inconvenient. George Hanson stated that a one hour wait is common at some ports.
A woman from Canada who likes to camp in Stephen said she has sat in a three-hour line-up in Pembina. (Someone asked at one point during the meeting that attendees from Canada stand and perhaps 20 people rose).
“Pinky” Juhl, a trucker from Lake Bronson, said he has waited over two hours at the Pembina port.
The possibility of making the Lancaster port a more appealing place to cross came up. Gordon Bernstrom, who said he remembers the days of crossing the border with horses, commented that, in recent years, he’s been given a “bad time” on the United States side. He said the crossing “was a friendly border – now to me it’s an enemy border.”
The fact that only pre-inspected or empty trucks can cross at Lancaster was brought up. “Why not make this a commercial port?’ suggested Tim Peterson.
Several people reiterated the financial consequences of shorter border crossing hours. Thief River Falls City Administrator Rodney Otterness read a letter by Thief River Falls mayor which stated in part, “The proposed 43 percent reduction in hours of operation could result in changes in travel patterns that precipitate a ‘death-spiral’ for the crossing.” The letter further stated that the lower value of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar, which is probably a reason for a decrease in the number of Canadians coming to the United States, is probably just temporary
Glen Brazier of Mattracks in Karlstad spoke of the considerable time and money he has invested in Kick’n Up Country and Wagon Wheel Ridge west of Karlstad. “We do stuff all through the year…They’re not going to come and wait an extra hour,” he commented.
Long-time Lancaster resident and former businessman Gary Rice remembers back forty-three years when the Lancaster port was open until midnight. Decreasing port hours “does have a major impact on businesses,” he said with the voice of experience.
Many of the attendees who spoke received enthusiastic applause for their comments.
Can public opinion influence policy? Perhaps – we’ll see.
Persons interested in making comment about adjustment of hours at the Lancaster port are welcome to do so at Lancastermailbox@cbp.dhs.gov
(Left) Eileen Bernsgrom and Gaye Allen collected signatures of those attending the meeting in Lancaster regarding the change of hours at the Port of Entry north of Lancaster. (Right) U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION representatives at the meeting in Lancaster, Minn. included (l-r) Jason Schmelz, area port director; Michael Freeman, from the field office in Seattle; Mary Meyers, Pembina Port; and David Moorhead, Roseau Port.
(Left) ARLEN NORDIN, PodCo, Inc., Lancaster, Minn., took a few minutes to talk directly with Jason Schmelz, Area Port Director, after the meeting held in Lancaster was over. The meeting had many business owners and residents in attendance as the issue of changing the port of entry closing time from 10 p.m. to 4 p.m. is being adopted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office. (Right) LEROY STUMPF & REP. DAN FABIAN attended the meeting in Lancaster regarding the changing of hours at the Lancaster Port of Entry. (Enterprise Photos by Linda Andersen)