Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Future of customs office uncertain

Loss of facility would be blow to busy border community

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 7/19/17

CRANE LAKE—Township officials and business owners in this border community say they’re worried about the future of their Customs and Border Patrol office and what the potential loss of the …

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Future of customs office uncertain

Loss of facility would be blow to busy border community

Posted

CRANE LAKE—Township officials and business owners in this border community say they’re worried about the future of their Customs and Border Patrol office and what the potential loss of the facility could mean to a local economy that depends heavily on cross-border traffic.

The customs office, located on the premises of the private seaplane base owned and operated by Darrell Scott, has been a fixture in Crane Lake since Scott’s grandfather first built an office for the federal agency in 1953. Over the years, the ready access to the local customs office combined with the relative shelter of Crane Lake’s Gold Coast, has helped turn this remote community into the busiest seaplane base in the United States, outside Alaska. Crane Lake Township Supervisor Jim Janssen said it’s become an important part of the community’s identity. “It’s a symbol of the uniqueness of the area,” said Janssen. “The town doesn’t want it to go away.”

Customs officials say they’re committed to maintaining a presence in Crane Lake, but they have indicated they no longer wish to pay for a manned customs office. Their current lease with Scotts expires at the end of the year and at this point no one knows what will happen then.

“Federal regulations allow us to ask for free space at landing rights airports,” said Tony Jackson, International Port Director at International Falls. “Mr. Scott’s seaplane base is a landing rights airport.”

Asking and getting, of course, are two very different things, and that appears to be the sticking point. Darrell Scott said he can’t afford to provide free office rental to the government. He pays property taxes and utilities for the office and has come to rely on the rental income as part of his overall business.

Janssen said similar considerations will likely keep any other business from offering a free home to the customs service. “I think they’ll be hard pressed to find anyone to give them space for free,” he said. “It’s not just about the building… it’s about the interruption in business and the lost dock space when planes come in. And the township certainly doesn’t have any space to give them.”

While federal regulations allow the customs office to ask for free space at airports, a report by the Federal Aviation Administration indicates that most airports do not offer space for free to the customs service. Those that do are typically larger, publicly-funded airports that either rely on tax dollars or fees charged to commercial airlines to pay for services like customs inspection. Scott’s Seaplane Base receives no public funding, other than for the lease of the custom’s office.

According to Jackson it comes down to a budgetary concern for the customs service and reflects the increasing use of technology, rather than manpower, to police the border. He said the customs office is exploring the use of self-service kiosks that would allow international travelers to check in and out of the country without dealing with a customs officer face-to-face. “We’ll do a soft launch of the technology on the Northwest Angle in August,” said Jackson. “Then we’ll see if the same technology can work in the Crane Lake area.”

Janssen has his doubts given the inconsistency of Internet access in the community, and he predicts backups and user frustration if the customs office shifts to the new technology.

District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund says the change is most likely being driven by budget cuts from Washington and he’s been in touch with both of the state’s U.S. Senators and Rep. Rick Nolan in hopes of resolving the impasse and ensuring that Crane Lake continues to have a customs office.

Jackson agreed that budget concerns are a major factor behind the demand. He said the customs service currently pays more than $150,000 annually to the General Services Administration for rent on the 1,440 square-foot office, a rental rate that includes utilities, dock space, janitorial services, liability insurance, and maintenance of the facility’s security system. “We will have paid more than $1.5 million over the ten years of the lease,” said Jackson, adding that the service has an obligation to be fiscally responsible.

But Scott states that as much as a third of that rental amount was to pay off the roughly half million-dollar construction cost of a new customs office that Scott built, at the government’s insistence, ten years ago. Scott notes that the federal agency told him at the time that the new facility, with significantly higher security standards, was required and that it would not renew its lease at the time without the new facility.

Scott said the agreement he had with the General Services Administration, which oversees most federal facility leases, was that the initial ten-year lease was designed to allow him to recoup the cost of the new customs office. He understood that the rental rate would be dropped in subsequent leases, but not eliminated altogether. Jackson initially said the information he’s reviewed indicates that the federal government paid Scott ten years ago to build the building for the customs service. But after hearing about Scott’s insistence to the contrary, Jackson said he’s looking into the matter.

Meanwhile, officials and business owners in Crane Lake worry about the uncertainty. “Change could be pretty drastic for a lot of our businesses,” said Scott. He noted that cross border resorts, like Campbells and Zups, as well as Nelson’s Resort in Crane Lake, all make regular use of the customs office for cross border activity, mostly for fly-in fishing or picking up resort guests. “There’s a lot of traffic going across the border,” said Scott, noting that 800 planes came through the base last summer. “That’s what this community is built on,” he said.

Ecklund said he’s still optimistic that some kind of arrangement can be worked out. “I think they came on initially with some strong-arm tactics,” said Ecklund. “I think there’s room for negotiation.”

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