Advocates of upgrading the port on the U. S.-Canadian border north of Havre are hopeful that a sudden about-face by Customs and Border Protection on having a longer period of summer hours will pay dividends.
CBP held a short-notice meeting in Havre Tuesday with members of the international committee that has been advocating upgrading the Port of Wild Horse to a 24-hour commercial port to announce a change in the summer hours of operation. The summer hours will run from Thursday through Oct. 31, rather than the normal period of summer hours from May 15 through Sept. 30. Canada Border Service Agency made the same announcement on its side, extending the hours for both commercial and private traffic.
“It was great news, ” Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbie Vandeberg said this morning. “I was thrilled when they handed out the press release at the meeting. ”
“Now our challenge is to do the best we can to drive traffic through that port, ” she added.
The Port of Wild Horse Border Committee, now co-chaired by Havre Mayor Tim Solomon and Medicine Hat, Alberta, Mayor Norm Boucher, has been pushing for nearly a decade to upgrade the port to 24-hour-a-day, commercial operation.
Now, the port is open 8 a. m. to 5 p. m. in the winter and 8 a. m. to 9 p. m. in the summer, and commercial drivers must have a permit to transport freight through it.
This is the fourth year the summer hours have been extended at the port, and, although it is starting later than the advocates asked for, is the first time the extension has been perfectly mirrored on both sides.
The first time, in 2009, the Canadian side didn’t mirror the summer hour extension in the spring, although the summer hours ran through October on the Canadian side.
The next time, in the fall of 2010, the Canadians didn’t match the extended hours in the fall, and when they extended the hours in March last year, did not include commercial traffic in the extension.
Solomon said after the meeting Tuesday that, despite the hours not starting March 1 as he requested, the extension should help, particularly with Canada mirroring the U. S. extension.
“So there shouldn’t be a hiccup like there was last time, ” he said. “Even though it is a little shorter … I think as long as we get word out quickly, we should be able to accomplish what we’re after. ”
Vandeberg and Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss both said this morning that, at least anecdotally, more Canadian traffic seems to be coming to the area.
“I’ve been asked by business owners all over our region to continue to work on this, because they’re beginning to see increased sales to Canadians, ” Tuss said.
Vandeberg said that a survey the Chamber did with local businesses showed that some retailers saw 30 percent, 40 percent, even 50 percent of their Christmas-season sales made to Canadians.
“That’s huge for our community, and it’s huge for our economy, ” she said. “We’re hoping that trend will continue. ”
Solomon said the increased Canadian traffic has benefited the entire region.
“I think the … business community is definitely seeing the impact on the things purchased out of Havre lately, ” he said. “I think both Havre and Great Falls have seen a big increase that way. ”
And it could increase, Vandeberg said, noting that higher gasoline prices might keep Havre’s neighbors in Alberta and Saskatchewan in this region, and that increases in the amount Canadians are being allowed to take home duty-free after a 24-hour or 48-hour stay, effective June 1, could make shopping in north-central Montana more attractive.
Vandeberg commended the work by the members of the border committee, the CBP representatives working with the committee, and U. S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats, for getting approval for the extended hours.
In a reply to a letter from Tester requesting the extended hours be used again, CBP Acting Commissioner David Aguilar wrote that the agency will continue to work with the groups involved on the question of Wild Horse.
“Facilitating legitimate trade and travel is a core mission commitment for CBP, so we will welcome future opportunities to discuss trade strategy and proposals to grow and sustain commercial traffic at the Port of Wild Horse with government officials, chambers of commerce, and other trade groups, ” Aguilar wrote.
But, he noted, CBP’s analysis showed an average increase of only one commercial and one passenger vehicle an hour during the extended hour, and wrote that CPB does not believe the initial lack of mirroring commercial traffic hours had an impact.
“Our analysis showed that the pilot had little effect on vehicle traffic at the Port of Wild Horse, ” he wrote.
But Tester disagrees.
“As Jon wrote in his letter to Acting Commissioner Aguilar, we won’t get complete information until the extended hours are mirrored on both sides, ” spokesperson Andrea Helling said this morning. “With the extended hours happening on both sides of the Port this year, we can anticipate having more complete data on which to base a decision for future port hours. ”
Baucus said this morning that the impact can be from more than just the number of cars.
"The value of extended hours can't be measured simply by traffic volume — every single commercial vehicle traveling into Canada supports jobs here in Montana, and every additional hour Canadian visitors spend here means business at local shops and restaurants. In today’s economy we can't afford to take one single job for granted.
“Still, there is a lot we can learn from last year’s data about how both decisions on the Canadian side of the border and CBP’s own outreach efforts impact the success of extended hours, ” Baucus added. “That’s why I'm using that data along with input from Montana businesses to help make this year’s pilot program work even better and find new ways to open the northern border for Montana business."
Tuss also said the numbers can be deceiving.
“There needs to be a more comprehensive and creative way to determine the economic impact beyond just simply counting cars that cross an imaginary line on a map …, ” he said. “We really believe that they need to do a deeper dive into what impact in the regional economy the open border is having on business success. ”
Canada changes rules on duty-free purchases
Canadian Border Services Agency is, effective June 1, changing the amounts of items purchased that people can bring across the border duty-free — excluding tobacco and alcohol purchases, which have not changed.
Canadians who travel to the U. S. for 24 hours or more will be able to bring back $200 worth of goods without paying tax or duty at the border. The current limit is $50.
For those Canadians who travel to the U. S. for 48 hours or more, the limit would increase from $400 to $800.
The new amounts will mirror the amounts on the U. S. side.
Commercial cargo permits required
Customs and Border Protection has reminded people that a cargo permit is required to import commercial merchandise into the U. S. through the Port of Wild Horse north of Havre. Permits must be approved in advance of cargo arrival. The CBP Area Port of Great Falls, which processes permit applications, has implemented a streamlined process to facilitate permit approvals. Contact the supervisory entry officer at (406) 453-7631 for more information.