Montana border businesses coping, but missing Canadian traffic

Posted at 10:57 PM, Mar 31, 2021

EUREKA — Montana's border communities face more COVID-19 uncertainty with the imminent arrival of another travel season but they're also pulling together to keep business going.

“We went from being a middle-of-the-road community to being two end of the road communities.”

Lincoln County Commissioner Josh Letcher says that separation between counties is especially acute in the Tobacco Valley, where the mix of people from Eureka, and the small towns north of the border remains on "full stop" by Canadian border restrictions. Coupled with local lockdowns, it's been a rough year.

“The biggest thing was a lot of our things, our events were canceled and it messed up a lot of our nonprofits because they could not make their money, do their moneymaking projects," recalls Blanche Flanagan of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce. “We've had businesses that have had to close because they were cafes or bars or whatever. If they were nonessential, they were closed and it got pretty creative to be able to keep things going and keep us floating.”

Montana Market owner B.G. Gwynn Cole says it's been a challenge operating one of the biggest grocery stores in northern Lincoln County, but the staff has been up to the adjustments.

”Product was one of the hardest things to get. We had no toilet paper for weeks. Our paper towels went away and we're still trying to get cat food.”

"It's not just my business here that is hurt," says Dave Clarke of the First & Last Chance Bar and Duty-Free store, literally the last American business on U.S. Highway 93.

"It's everything within 60 miles, 80 miles of the border. Private property owners over there that come down to Eureka do their grocery shopping, get gas, go back It's 13 miles one way to come to Eureka. It's 45 to go to Fernie and 65 to go to Cranbrook.”

It's not just gas and groceries either as many British Columbia residents own property in Lincoln County.

“In Lincoln County, you know we probably send four, five, 600 tax bills to people in Canada 'cause they own homes down here. Those people can't even come down and see the home that they own.” For Clarke, who mirrors the wood-carved statue of his dad that fought to get the Port of Roosville open 24-hours a day, plans are on hold," Letcher explained.

Clarke says the month-by-month extensions on the Canadian COVID-19 restrictions have put his business upgrade plans on hold.

“The Canadians and vacation traffic in summer times. Which is what makes me be able to do improvements on my place.”

“Now, granted, we miss them," Cole said. "But at the same time, it's like, this community stepped up in and it did what it needed to do.

It has been a challenging time here in the Tobacco Valley but just like in times past, Flanagan says everyone is remembering how to pull together.

“We're seeing a lot more people buy local. Where we want to support our local people and so there's not as many people going to Kalispell for things or going to Missoula or going to Spokane.”

Some, like Montana Market, were ahead of the game, with already established online shopping and a delivery system going back decades.

“So we deliver once a week to the West Kootenai. We go Fortine, Trego and then we go to the border. We go to Glen Lake," Cole explained in her cozy back-office below the store. "We did not want to let our customer base down at all.”

Ironically the pandemic has brought new attention to this corner of Montana, with new arrivals buying homes around the valley.

“Somebody said we're the best-kept secret in the United States and I think that's probably true, and we've had a lot of wonderful people move in and they want to be part of our group and part of our community," Flanagan observes. "And so that's kind of exciting too.”

Still, at the First & Last Chance, where the stickers are a reminder of that long history with cross-border traffic, there's an urgency to bring back the B.C. regulars too. I asked Clarke if it would be nice to see those friends too.

“It would be. Because a lot of them I've known for years, we haven't seen him for a year.”

A lot of the people we talked with are frustrated and perplexed that the northern border closure isn't getting more attention, with most of the headlines coming from the U.S.-Mexican border.