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Border communities conference in the works

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Fort Frances will be the site of an inaugural conference of international proportions this summer as the local border task force is drafting plans for the first-annual conference of the Canadian American Border Communities Organization (CABCO).

The purpose is to introduce the concept of CABCO to government and border community leaders from across North America, International Falls Mayor Shawn Mason said as the local Border Communities Organization discussed tentative plans for the conference at its meeting here last Thursday.

According to the draft version of its mission statement, CABCO is an organization which provides “a forum to those living near the Canadian-American border to exchange information, address issues of common concern, educate policy-makers, and advocate for Canadian-American border communities.”

There also will be discussion at the conference of issues relevant to border communities, such as passports or alternative identification, treatment at the border, efficiencies at the border, cross-border trade between border communities, and social events and relationships within border communities.

Invitations to the conference will be sent out to everyone from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, U.S. senators Norm Coleman and Mark Dayton, U.S. Congressman Jim Oberstar, and U.S. President George Bush to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, local MPP Howard Hampton, and federal leaders.

“It takes just as much energy to think big as it does to think small, so we’re thinking big on this,” said Mayor Mason.

Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk noted they’ll have to wait until after next week’s federal election to know who to contact among the Canadian federal politicians.

International Falls CAO Rod Otterness said the group has to be able to “tease” delegates to come by lining up important guest speakers, as well as establish a mission statement and vision statement for CABCO to make it clear to delegates what the group stands for prior to the conference.

Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig asked what might happen after this conference, to which Otterness replied this should be the first of several, which would be held in other border communities, such as Niagara Falls, each year.

Ideally, this conference will “energize people on each side of the border,” added Otterness, getting them to establish their own individual border communities organizations.

Eventually, a CABCO administrative office would be set up in either Fort Frances or International Falls as a central base. As CABCO’s reputation would grow, anyone with border issues would know to contact this permanent base for assistance.

Mayor Onichuk noted that would mean CABCO would have to form a board of directors and have border communities from either country become members—complete with a membership fee that would support CABCO’s infrastructure.

Mayor Mason said the local border communities group will have to “live and breathe this organization” for a year after the conference to establish an executive and administrative structure for CABCO, but added it is a ground-breaking initiative in the eyes of both the Canadian and U.S. governments.

“It’s historic,” echoed Falls Coun. Bill Torseth.

“It would be so powerful to have a unified voice,” said Mayor Mason.

“There’s nothing else like it,” said Mayor Onichuk.

“But there’s a lot of sister cities,” added Mayor Mason.

“Which could be used to make this grow,” interjected Mayor Onichuk.

The conference tentatively is scheduled for Aug. 22-23 at La Place Rendez-Vous.

The Border Communities Organization here now will work on refining its vision statement, with the aim of having it in place before sending out invitations in March.

< *c>Bridge update

In related news, representatives from both sides of the border will get a better idea of what kind of shape the international bridge is in after a meeting slated for Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. at the Holiday Inn in the Falls.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation and the Minnesota Department of Transportation will share their views on the technical data on the bridge.

“It’s really important because that has an impact on whatever the price is going to be,” Mayor Onichuk said after last Thursday’s meeting. “If you’re in a situation where the steel part of the bridge needs to replaced in 25 years, that takes the price of it from here to here.”

Unfortunately, said the mayor, much of the specific financial information on the bridge won’t be available because the International Bridge and Terminal Company and the Minnesota Dakota and Western Railway (joint owners), and their parent companies, Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade, have yet to retain a broker and thus haven’t released those numbers.

Also at last Thursday’s meeting, the group discussed how Congressman Oberstar showed his support for the possible purchase of the bridge at a meeting in International Falls the day before.

Mayor Mason noted Oberstar is “very interested in helping” in the acquisition of the bridge, and outlined a number of ways the border communities could go about possibly getting it.

Oberstar had said that perhaps the best way to go about it was to form an international bridge authority, which would have equal control on both sides of the border.

Mayor Onichuk noted Oberstar said one possible way of transferring ownership of the bridge would be for the companies to sell it for $1 to the province and state, with the governments on both sides giving the companies tax credits equal to an agreed upon price.

Mayor Mason said Oberstar would be putting his ideas down on paper and giving his report to the Border Communities Organization down the road.

Otterness voiced concerns over the slowness of working with the government, especially when it comes to committing money. Both communities would be out of luck if a private buyer comes on the scene and purchases the bridge from under the public partners.

He noted the bridge’s current owners should be contacted and asked if they would consider holding off selling the bridge if they could be convinced a bid from a senior level of government was in the works.

Ideally, said Mayor Onichuk, the bridge would be bought by the province and state, the companies would get a tax credit, and the toll removed—resulting in an increase in traffic and consequent economic boom.

He added he felt having the bridge in public hands was the best option both for the companies and the two border communities.

The bridge was announced for sale back on Nov. 3 after its owners had determined that owning the bridge is not a core business asset.

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