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Five years of depressed Canadian dollar hurts shopping in Grand Forks, but businesses are adjusting, officials say

It's been almost five years since the Canadian dollar has been more valuable than the U.S. dollar, and though shopping from our neighbors to the north has dropped, local leaders and businessmen still feel plenty of Canadians are coming down to Gr...

Chris and Bill Whitney of Winnipeg make a stop at Target in Grand Forks Friday on their way to the airshow in Duluth. They say that they shop less often in Grand Forks mainly due to the exchange rate. They also say they don't let the political situation bother them too much. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Chris and Bill Whitney of Winnipeg make a stop at Target in Grand Forks Friday on their way to the airshow in Duluth. They say that they shop less often in Grand Forks mainly due to the exchange rate. They also say they don't let the political situation bother them too much. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

It's been almost five years since the Canadian dollar has been more valuable than the U.S. dollar, and though shopping from our neighbors to the north has dropped, local leaders and businessmen still feel plenty of Canadians are coming down to Grand Forks.

"This isn't something that is new; the Canadian dollar really hasn't changed that much in the last four years," said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO for the Grand Forks East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of our retail businesses have already found new ways to attract new customers in our market and have adjusted to that."

The Canadian dollar was worth 74 U.S. cents as of Friday afternoon, staying steady in the last year. The Canadian dollar reached a U.S. currency value of $1.02 in September 2012 before continuing a downward dip to below 80 cents by mid-2015.

A survey conducted by the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau showed the Canadian dollar's value is deterring about 63 percent of the survey-takers from venturing south to Grand Forks.

However, that appears to be on par with previous numbers-the 2016 study said 66 percent of the respondents were less likely to come to Grand Forks because of the Canadian dollar, up from the 2015 survey that showed 63 percent were turned off by the exchange rate.

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In the numbers

Canadian shoppers are an important part of Grand Forks' retail market, said Wade Pearson, president of the Grand Forks-based Home of Economy. It's hard to tell to what extent the exchange rate has impacted the area, but it is noticeable, he said.

"Sometimes you notice the Canadian license plates in the parking lot," Pearson said, adding he noticed the furniture side of the business-Home of Economy houses furniture store The Amish Gallery-has seen a drop in sales since the Canadian dollar fell.

Some stores are impacted more by Canadian stores than others: Wilfahrt said shoppers from the north make up as little as 5 percent of a store's income while others see about 30 percent of their sales coming from Canadians.

Monthly border crossing numbers for the last eight months at the Port of Pembina, N.D., which is about 70 miles north of Grand Forks, have been up and down year over year, but the overall numbers for Fiscal Year 2016 were down from the year before. Roughly 290,000 vehicles-excluding semi traffic-came into the U.S. at the port from Oct. 1, 2015 through Sept. 30, 2016, about a 12.5 percent decrease from Fiscal Year 2015.

Still, recent border crossing figures at the Pembina port have shown slight increases year over year in recent months. The most recent numbers from April show a 2.3 percent increase for vehicle traffic-excluding semis-over April 2016. March saw a larger jump year over year, clocking in a 6 percent increase.

'They will be buying again'

The drop in Canadian traffic has reached Fargo, as well, West Acres Mall CEO Brad Schlossman said. The mall doesn't keep specific measurements on Canadian traffic, but it has been noticeable in the last five years, he said.

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"It varies a lot by store," he said of how much Canadian traffic factors into a store's income. "For some stores, it is a significant factor. For other stores, it's less."

There is no way to measure whether Canadians are bypassing Grand Forks to shop in Fargo, Schlossman said. The Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn't track Canadian shopping numbers, and even the Grand Fork numbers on Canadian visitors there are limited, said Julie Rygg, executive director of the Grand Forks CVB. The annual survey her organization conducts said 62 percent of the 2017 respondents stayed in Grand Forks, while 31 percent ventured to other places.

Columbia Mall has been a major destination for Canadian shoppers, mall spokeswoman Marianne Fasano said in an email. Macy's closing earlier this year has put a dent in overall foot traffic, but Wilfahrt believes retail in Grand Forks is still strong and is optimistic the retail community will "continue to thrive."

"Obviously, Macy's leaving, it's never good to see a major anchor like that leave your community," he said. "Overall, we still have a lot of retail selection and choices."

Fasano agreed, saying the mall still sees regular traffic from Canadians.

"Our location at the northeast corner of North Dakota is an easy drive for many Manitobans, and the shopping center's many brand stores offer a broad variety of value-priced merchandise and one-stop shopping for Canadians," she said. "Regional malls such as Columbia Mall continue to draw shoppers who want to see and touch the merchandise."

Schlossman said core shoppers from West Acres come from Fargo and the region, adding shopping at the mall is still strong.

"I would say the most important thing we can do is to make sure we have the stores that the customers want to come to," he said.

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Others say Canadians like shopping in Grand Forks; they are just waiting for a better exchange rate.

"Some of them are even stopping by and saying when the exchange rate comes up they will be buying again," Pearson said.

Bill Whitney unloads groceries with his wife, Chris, into their camper at Target in Grand Forks Friday. The Canadian couple stopped to buy groceries on their way to an airshow in Duluth this weekend.photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Bill Whitney unloads groceries with his wife, Chris, into their camper at Target in Grand Forks Friday. The Canadian couple stopped to buy groceries on their way to an airshow in Duluth this weekend.photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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