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Communities missing out on billions as US-Canadian border remains closed

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Posted at 12:53 PM, Jul 02, 2021

EAST BURKE, Vt. — Tucked away in the upper corner of Vermont, a trio of counties creates a secluded outdoor utopia.

What Essex, Caledonia, and Orleans counties may lack in human population, they make up for in beauty so remarkable that together they’ve earned a royal name: The Northeast Kingdom.

"It’s like living in a Norman Rockwell painting," said local resident Johnny Lotti.

Lotti came to the Northeast Kingdom town of East Burke with his wife and opened Café Lotti five years ago. He was attracted to the region not just because it had the visual appeal of a Rockwell, but the character too.

"Everybody helps each other out and so it's a fantastic thing," he said.

The state of Vermont has fully opened up from the coronavirus pandemic and businesses do not have any restrictions for occupation. However, the Northeast Kingdom remains disconnected from one of its greatest financial feeders – Canada, specifically the country’s French-speaking Quebec province.

"Between 50 and 60% of your business is gone. That's, that's a pretty big, pretty big thing," said Lotti.

Canada is so close to the area that the borderline runs right through some residents' back yards. Not just a stone’s throw, but a handshake away. For 16 months, Canadians, friends, and tourists alike haven’t been able to visit.

"It's the loss of relationships of not being able to see each other, but hospitality-wise, we've taken hits," said Darcie McCann, the Director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce.

According to U.S. Census data, the three counties that make up the kingdom round out the bottom of Vermont’s per capita income. What keeps the area running financially is tourism and recreation and a great portion of that is from Canada.

McCann believes the hits that the local economy has taken during the border closure equal tens of millions of dollars.

"I would probably estimate it between $40 and 50 million," she said.

"It's a huge number. And luckily, it has spread out over a number of months but people have really tightened their belts."

While visitors come for outdoor recreation, they stay and spend money in the area. One of those attractions is Kingdom Trails, a network of more than 100 miles of trails primarily used for mountain biking.

Kingdom Trails is based in East Burke and attracts nearly 150,000 to the area. That translates into $10 million pumped into the local economy annually. It typically attracts so many Canadian tourists, it even has signs in French.

"We specifically saw our visits decline around 40%, and that is about the amount of the Canadian visits that we generally have," said Lilias Ide, the communications and program manager at Kingdom Trails.

Ide said their organization was able to use the decline in visits to revamp some of their protocols and branding, but it is looking forward to the border reopening and welcoming back visitors from the north as well as the surrounding businesses that benefit from their proximity of the trail network.

"The businesses that are not doing as well, including us, know that when the border opens, that is going to make up for it. So we also look forward to it," said Ide.

It’s a story that is not unique to this part of Vermont. Border communities from Maine to Ohio to Washington state are hurting right now by the billions. According to the U.S. Travel Association, every month the border with Canada is closed, the united states loses another $1.5 billion.

Though the answer to the question of when the border will reopen is murky, there’s been a bright spot. Darcie McCann has noticed that the Northeast Kingdom has seen a rise in folks from bigger cities, after learning that they can work from home, moving to the area.

"That's been one of the really positive aspects of this, is that we need people to move to the state to add to the economy and be part of our community. And they're doing it," said McCann.

That, plus the helping spirit of those already there, keeps business owners like Johnny Lotti.

"We just have to kind of band together and do what's best for the community and roll that way," he said.

They're hoping the kingdom’s incredible beauty will continue to be the resource that sustains it.