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Massena Daily Courier - New Customs Spot Designated

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Location: Washington, DC

Massena Daily Courier - New Customs Spot Designated

The temporary Canadian customs station relocated to Cornwall, Ont. last summer may find a new, more permanent home on American soil, alongside the U.S. Port of Entry in Massena.

Rep. William L. Owens and Canadian member of Parliament Guy Lauzon met with Cornwall and Massena officials Friday morning to discuss a plan to move Canadian customs to Massena to better facilitate the movement of people and goods between the two countries.

The officials said co-locating the facilities on one side of the border could help solve a number of challenges both communities have faced since conflict erupted at the Canadian customs' former Cornwall Island location last summer.

"Everyone has seen a decline in the number of people crossing the border," Mr. Owens said. "We've also seen delays in terms of the movement of trucks and goods. Those are the kinds of things we need to make sure don't continue."

The congressman pointed out that the U.S. and Canadian governments already operate a number of co-located customs facilities along the northern border and said that approach seems to make a lot of sense for the Massena-Cornwall crossing as well.

Mr. Owens said the proposal will be sent to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano next week. Mr. Lauzon said he would bring the idea back to the Canadian government for their consideration.

"I think we all want the same thing," Mr. Lauzon said. "We want a free and open border. We all agree we should try to have the Canadian port of entry as close to the U.S. port of entry as possible. The congressman and I are going to urge both of our governments to try and make that happen."

The Cornwall Island station has been closed since June, when a plan to equip Canadian customs officers with firearms touched off conflict between the Canadian Border Services Agency and Akwesasne residents on Cornwall Island, who opposed the arming.

A temporary customs facility was erected in the city of Cornwall to help reopen the Seaway International Bridge while the Canadian government and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne entered into talks to attempt to resolve the conflict. Those talks have since stalled and the temporary station remains in place on the Canadian mainland.

Officials said the valuable role the Cornwall-Massena crossing plays in the economic and cultural lives of communities on both sides of the river was made very clear during the six week bridge closure.

Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray attended the Friday morning meeting with Mr. Owens and Mr. Lauzon, as well as Massena Town Councilman John F. Macaulay and Cornwall City Mayor Robert Kilger.

The Massena and Cornwall officials shared their communities' respective experiences with the bridge closure, as well as their desire for a resolution to the problems that still exist at the crossing.

Mr. Kilger was cautiously optimistic the plan would help facilitate a mutually-beneficial resolution to conflict surrounding the customs station.

"You have to be careful on this issues that are by their very nature complex, not to raise false expectations, but certainly it's an important step and a positive step," Mr. Kilger said.

Pointing to huge losses in tourism and retail revenues, Mr. Gray emphasized the need for a reliable border crossing that travelers and business owners feel they can count on to meet their needs.

"The bridge shutdown last year was a horrible, horrible thing for our economy and for our community," Mr. Gray said. "I don't know if some of our businesses would survive another shutdown. We need to do whatever we can to make sure that doesn't happen again."

Alleviating lingering uncertainty about the crossing will also help to ensure businesses are able to make the necessary transportation arrangements to keep goods flowing in and out of both communities, Cornwall Chamber of Commerce President Scott Armstrong said.

"One issue the community has been dealing with since the impasse is the lack of a permanent solution," Mr. Armstrong said Friday afternoon. "If you are not certain that the corridor is going to be open, it becomes difficult to plan your transportation route, whether you are importing or exporting parts or goods as part of your business."

Mr. Armstrong and Greater Massena Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michael J. Gleason said decisions about where to put the Canadian customs station will be up to elected officials, but they emphasized the need for a permanent solution that would ensure fast, safe, reliable passage for travelers and products moving between countries.

"We can't afford another bridge closure," Mr. Gleason said. "It killed things for businesses on both sides. When you see a 25 to 30 percent drop in revenues in the busiest tourist time, that's not good for anybody. Whatever they can do to keep the bridge open and cut down on the traffic and wait times would be a positive step."

Mohawk Council of Akwesasne spokesman Brendan White said his community is reserving judgment on the proposal until they are consulted.

The conflicts that led to the early summer impasse between MCA and the CBSA remain unresolved, including the arming of border services agents, the future of the customs station and the treatment of Akwesasne community members by customs officials, Mr. White said.

"We would expect that Akwesasne would be at the table before any decision is made that will directly impact us," Mr. White said. "We have sent out a number of requests seeking an opportunity to discuss not only the arming initiative but the concerns our leaders have raised on behalf of community members. There have been no formal discussions. We're still seeking consultation."

The temporary relocation of the customs station and a lack of a permanent solution has also contributed to delays in the construction of a low-level bridge to replace the north span of the Seaway International Bridge connecting Cornwall Island to the Canadian mainland.

Mr. Lauzon said the Canadian-owned Seaway International Bridge Corporation, which owns and operates the bridge and toll system linking Cornwall with Massena, is still pursuing plans to rebuild the span. The Parliament official said money to construct the new bridge has been budgeted and an environmental study is under way.

If the customs station were moved to the U.S., Mr. Lauzon said it is possible both projects could happen simultaneously.

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