By Anna Jauhola
LANCASTER, Minn. – The hours at the Lancaster Port of Entry will not be changing anytime soon.
Representatives from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) met with Congressman Colin Peterson, D-Minn., and members of the Lancaster and area communities on Thursday, Aug. 29 to discuss the issue.
As frustrations continue, they did not come to any conclusion on how to fix the problem.
CBP reduced the hours at the Lancaster Port of Entry a few years ago based on low traffic numbers. Mike Freeman, CBP area director of field operations, said the agency initially was going to set the Lancaster port hours at 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but upon hearing from the public, CBP set summer hours at 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and fall through spring hours at 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“So we did listen,” he said.
Despite that, Peterson and others at the meeting still don’t feel CBP is taking the right approach in adjusting hours.
Specific to Lancaster, City Clerk/Treasurer Carol Johnson said the city’s revenue has been heavily affected by the reduced port hours. She estimates that since 2017, the city and its businesses have lost approximately $50,000 in revenue from the loss of Canadian campers.
“Our 2018 and 2019 decrease in receipts was 24 percent,” she said. “That’s 218 camping nights. So take 218 times two guests per site average, that’s 436 people in our town in a day. If we said they spent $100 a day, which is a fair number considering food, golfing, gas, hardware for camping, that’s about a $50,000 decrease to our city businesses.”
Other business owners in attendance noted their business has decreased as well since the port of entry hours decreased – Bernstrom Oil is down 16 percent, the grocery store is down 5 percent, Lancaster Lumber is down 8 to 10 percent, to name a few.
Ron Nordin, vice president of sales at PodCo, noted also that communities down Highway 59 also suffer.
In conjunction with Carol Johnson’s comments, others expressed the CBP cannot only look at the number of cars passing through the port to make a decision on hours. Ted Falk, member of the Canadian House of Commons, spoke directly to this issue as he helped keep the Canadian port hours at 10 p.m.
“You can’t just look at the numbers,” he said. “It’s got to be more of a holistic approach. You have to look at the communities that are affected and you’ve got to look at the socio-economic impact of the decision you’re making. It’s not just a traffic count … I think if you look at it from a holistic point like that, you’ll come up with a different solution.”
Adele Fasano, CBP director of field operations, said the agency is in the process of re-evaluating the port of entry hour reductions, but didn’t give a specific time frame. She mentioned Lancaster’s port evaluation was a part of the first phase and CBP is now beginning Phase 2 of evaluating port hours along the U.S.-Canadian border. She said they have already visited many North Dakota ports and have reduced hours at a couple of locations.
Lancaster Mayor Mike Olson asked if saving money was the reason they cut Lancaster’s port hours.
“Basically, the issue is that CBP has a lot of challenges,” Fasano said. “I’m sure you’ve seen and heard about the challenges we face. We are a very large operation.”
She noted that CBP runs major airports and is struggling with the major influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Brian Greer, counselor for Emerson and Franklin, Manitoba, communities, said the issues for the Lancaster port differ greatly from the southern border.
“What we have here is if Canadian citizens want to come to something here, like a graduation, they have to leave home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon to get to something that starts at 8 o’clock at night,” Greer said. “And our alternative is an hour and a half each way to come here and visit the United States.”
He noted that Canadian truckers also have to make huge concessions to enter the U.S. on time to pick up a load and return to Canada.
“Why won’t U.S. Customs give us the same courtesy we give to the U.S.?” Greer asked, referencing the fact that Canada kept their port hours at 10 p.m. when the Canadian people opposed a change to 8 p.m.
Fasano said CBP did “an extensive study” recently to find what kind of technology could assist in automating ports of entry to help solve issues like this. Although ports of entry, like in The Angle on Lake of the Woods, are able to use iPads for visitors to check in, the technology and the money isn’t available for larger ports at this time.
“At this point the technology is not reliable,” Fasano said. “We have issues with some of the data lines and phone lines. We have pretty good internet access, but we do struggle with the lines.”
She also noted that to use iPads at the Lancaster port would introduce security threats, which would require the CBP to upgrade its security systems.
“So, there are a lot of different aspects to this,” she said.
Peterson said he is working with other members of Congress, specifically Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, to secure $4.5 billion in funding to help resolve this issue along the U.S.-Canadian border. But, the major hurdle is how to ensure the funding is used for this particular issue.
Fasano said she and her colleagues will summarize the meeting from Thursday and bring that information back to the home CBP office. She added that written communication and support from local and area communities, businesses and governments help when making these decisions.
By Anna Jauhola