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Relief could be on way for northern Minnesota businesses hit hard by fires, border restrictions

The pandemic and wildfires last summer were especially devastating to businesses in northern Minnesota, as they count on Canadians, border travelers and the normally busy summer season for their success.

Helping businesses in that region recover economically is the aim of HF2811.

It would appropriate $15 million in fiscal year 2023 for businesses affected by closure of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and restrictions crossing the Canadian border. Businesses could receive up to $50,000.

The House Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee laid the bill over Wednesday for possible inclusion in a larger bill. It has no Senate companion.

Outfitters, guides, restaurants and lodges lost one-third to one-half of their season in 2021 due to park closures and evacuations caused by the fires and pandemic restrictions on border crossings.

Even after the border reopened, the Canadian government made travel and trade across the border virtually impossible, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls).

Legislators shouldn’t forget those who invested lives and livelihood in businesses along the border, Ecklund said. 

“They’ve done everything they can to survive this crisis and we have resources to give them additional help,” he said. 

Testifiers spoke of losing between 50% and 90% of their business the past two years.

Robert Deschampe, chair of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, figured more than 80% of its customers are Canadian and few have been able to cross the border.

“There are 150,000 people five miles away who can’t support our business,” Deschampe said.

It was like someone turned a spigot off in March 2020, said Mike Boomer, owner of Ryden’s Border Store in Grand Portage. The Boomers used pandemic and personal loans to try to keep running and to keep employees. 

Gunflint Lodge and Outfitters has a similar story of revenue loss as the National Forest Service closed public land due to wildfires in late August and September near the BWCA, said owner Mindy Fredrikson.

Qualifiers for state help must be in a county along the Canadian border, or communities surrounding the Boundary Waters, and show at least a 10% drop in revenue from 2020.

Ecklund said the state support of businesses hurt by the decline of walleye in the Lake Mille Lacs area in 2016 helped inform the funding sought in his bill.

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