As summer approaches and the U.S.-Canada border remains closed, some city campground managers in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota are concerned about potential lost revenue for a second straight year.
The border between the United States and Canada closed, by mutual agreement of then-President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on March 20, 2020, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Since then, Trudeau has extended the border closure on a month-by-month basis. The latest target date is April 21.
But many people, including city campground managers, are dubious about whether that will happen because Trudeau appears to still be concerned about COVID-19, saying in a March 18 comment on Twitter that “We’ll continue to do whatever is necessary to keep you and your loved ones safe.”
Over the past few decades, campgrounds in the region's towns and cities, including Grafton and the Minnesota cities of Warren and Lancaster, have become popular places for Canadians to stay for the summer. They use the campgrounds as a base while they go shopping, see local entertainment and participate in outdoor activities, such as golf.
The lost revenue from the campground fees and from the money the campers spend while staying in the cities is a financial hit.
In Lancaster, Minn. – located just south of the border in northwest Minnesota – at least 90% of the town’s 12 long-term camping spots typically are filled with Canadians, said Carol Johnson, Lancaster city clerk-treasurer. In 2020, the Lancaster City Council didn’t charge the campers for the long-term spots because there weren't others seeking to fill them.
In 2020, the city collected only $654, which was revenue from campers who stayed in some of the additional 13 short-term spots. The amount was less than 5% of the $15,470 it collected in 2019 when the border was open.
Whether that will be the case this year depends on whether Trudeau will add more extensions to the border closure.
“If the border doesn’t open, we will have the same exact problem,” Johnson said.
Farther south, in Warren, Minn., the revenue loss from the lack of Canadian campers also is significant, said Brent McMillan, city operations manager. About 60% of Warren’s 40 seasonal sites are reserved by Canadian campers, some of whom have returned there each summer for decades.
“Campground income was down 42% in 2020 versus 2019,” McMillan said. “There was roughly a $30,000 drop in revenue from 2019 to 2020.”
The money is used to fund Warren parks and recreation programs and for other parks and recreation department expenses.
Meanwhile, there’s a trickle-down effect from the revenue loss because the city’s Riverside Golf Course loses memberships, the municipal swimming pool sells fewer passes and there’s less business at grocery stores, gas stations and liquor stores.
A few of the Canadians who annually reserve camping spots have contacted the city to say they are canceling their summer reservations, while others are waiting to see if the border opens, McMillan said. He hopes a decision will be made one way or another so he can plan.
“It’s been a year now and they keep moving it, one month at a time, which is bad. If we knew they wouldn’t be coming back, we could potentially rent those out,” McMillan said.
In North Dakota, the uncertainty has prompted Grafton Parks and Recreation to advertise its camping sites for the first time since it opened about a decade ago, said Bill Dahl, Grafton Parks and Recreation director.
Last year, construction and pipeline workers filled the sites the Canadians didn’t use, but that won’t be the case this year, so the city is ramping up an advertising campaign and working with businesses that sell recreational vehicles to promote the Grafton campground.
“We’ve never had to market our campground before. This year we started marketing,” he said
Over the years, 24 sites – or one-third of the city’s 72 campground sites – have been reserved by Canadian visitors who stay the entire summer, Dahl said. On summer weekends, the city typically rents another 15 to 20 sites or cabins to friends and family members of the summer-long campers, he said.
All told, about 60% of the summer reservations are from Canadians, he said.
The city will continue to hold the sites for the Canadian campers who have long-term reservations, but rent them out for short periods, such as a week or a weekend, until there's a decision about the border reopening, Dahl said. If the border does reopen, he’s confident the Canadians who have reserved the sites will return to Grafton.
“They keep saying ‘As soon as the border opens, we’re coming down,’” he said.