Since Canada and the U.S. agreed to close their shared border in March, the economic impact has been felt across the line, but it could be argued that few places have endured a more devastating blow than the small community of Blaine, Wash.
Known for its small-town charm, with a population of about 5,000, Blaine’s economic engine is fuelled by Canadians stopping for cheap gas, picking up groceries, collecting packages, browsing the shops or stopping for lunch.
Now that the Peace Arch crossing is closed, Blaine’s economic engine hasn’t just slowed down, it has seized.
“It killed it,” Blaine resident Len Saunders said, “It’s not that there’s less business, there’s no business.”
B.C. licence plates are normally a typical sight at Blaine-area gas stations, but now, “guaranteed, you won’t see one car there,” Saunders added.
Among the hardest-hit industries is package delivery and receiving. Used frequently by Canadians, the businesses allow their address to be used so that Canadians can save a buck, and time, on international shipping by picking up parcels at a U.S. location.
Blaine Postal Center, which is located near the south edge of town, has had its business cut in half, owner Lyle Elsbree said. He suspects that package businesses closer to the northern line – frequented more often by Canadians – have lost about 90 per cent of their business due to the border closure.
Saunders noted that some package receiving businesses have added shipping containers to their parking lot, and “they’re just throwing all the boxes inside there because nobody can come down and pick up their packages.”
Not only did package facilities bring money in for the business, but Canadians often made a day trip out of it, grabbing a bite to eat or visiting shops in town.
Those dollars, City of Blaine Coun. Garth Baldwin said, have also dried up.
“Our economic shortfall is somewhere in the neighbourhood of at least, I would say optimistically, $800,000 this year,” said Baldwin, who also sits on the city’s finance committee. “Just spit-balling, just guessing… I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s $1.3 million by the time the year is over.”
Baldwin said for the last a couple of years, the city has been developing its downtown core as an enticing place for Canadians to stop on their travels, including adding a Starbucks, a taco place and an oyster bar.
“We’ve added these businesses and right when we start to get a foothold on things – people were coming over – it literally shut down, didn’t it,” Baldwin said.
“Shoot, the oyster guys had a cooler full of ice and oysters out front with a sign that said, ‘help yourself,’” he added. “They were giving away bags of oysters.”
Blaine Chamber of Commerce event co-ordinator Donna Raimey said Blaine used to see about 20,000 people come through the city daily. That number has dropped to about 2,000.
“And that’s all essential (workers),” Raimey said. “So that doesn’t necessarily mean anybody is stopping in Blaine. They could just be coming through on the highway.”
“It’s just… downtown is very dead right now. There’s not hardly any traffic at all.”
So far, the number of businesses that have permanently closed has been minimal, she added.
“We haven’t had a lot of closures, thankfully, yet. We’re hoping this border opens up quickly, not counting on it, but we’re hoping for it,” Raimey said.
While President Donald Trump seems eager to open the country’s economy – despite the rapidly spreading coronavirus that has killed 115,000 Americans and infected more than 2 million – Raimey understands why the border remains closed.
“I think Canada has done really well, as far as keeping the pandemic under control,” she said.
“We understand that you don’t want to undo all of the hard work they’ve done there. You just have to see it from all angles and be willing to understand that we’re all in this together, but we’re fighting it kind of differently because of our locations.”
The silver lining is that Raimey has formed relationships with other chambers of commerce in Whatcom County. While the Blaine chamber is event-driven, the Bellingham chamber is more business-focused.
“A positive thing that came out of it has been the connection that I’ve made with people and organizations that I probably would have never connected with on this level. It’s not all negative… and that’s something we will continue to carry forward,” Raimey said.
Some businesses, meanwhile, have found success during the shutdown, including Saunders’ immigration law practice.
“I hate to tell you this, but it’s up. I’m actually up,” Saunders said.
“When they first closed the border, I thought I’m done. My business is going to die,” he said, adding that lawyers who focus on business visas have experienced up to a 90 per cent drop in work.
Anchor Inn Motel owner Mangal Samr, who operates the business with his family, said his business is also doing well despite the border closure.
“I don’t have any problems with the border closing,” he said, adding that a refinery near Blaine recently shut down and as a result they lost some business.
“But tell them the good, tell them it’s good – not bad,” he said.