Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday launched a $10 million grant program for Maine transportation and border businesses hit hard by the prolonged closing of the American border to Canadians.

In announcing the plan, Mills also urged federal officials to reciprocate Canada’s decision to reopen its border to vaccinated Americans, which took effect Monday. Federal officials said they will review this month the border closing, which has been in place since March 2020, and decide in about 10 days whether to lift it or leave it in place.

Businesses in border towns said Thursday that the closing has hurt them in financial and other ways, and that they would be looking into the grant program.

Mills said the grant program is aimed at Maine charter transportation businesses statewide and most businesses that are open to the public within 25 miles of a U.S.-Canada border crossing.

“Maine’s border businesses rely on tourism from our northern neighbors to make ends meet, but with the federal government’s unfortunate decision to extend the border closure, traffic from Canada will continue to be limited,” the governor said in a statement.

Mills said she hopes the grants, of up to $100,000 each, will provide relief to hard-hit businesses. The money can be used to cover expenses such as payroll, rent or mortgage payments, utilities, operating expenses, inventory costs, the purchase of personal protective equipment and other business-related equipment.

Grants to businesses that have not previously received coronavirus relief funds will be given priority, state officials said.

Mills said Maine is using $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for the grants. Aid for businesses that operate charters, land and sea excursions, cater to sightseers or operate in ports and harbors will be available statewide and will be based on the particular impact of the border closing on those business, administration officials said.

Grants will also be available for retailers and restaurants within 25 miles of a border crossing because many Canadians used to cross the border to shop at those businesses.

Michael McFadden, who manages a variety store in Lubec that is owned by his brother, said business from Canadians who live nearby on Campobello Island has been off since the pandemic led to the border closings.

“Our Canadian funds are down a lot,” he said, even though Canadians are still allowed to cross into the United States for essential items. Since there are no gas stations on Campobello, he said, many Canadians come across the border to fill up, but their stays are brief and they have cut back on spending.

For instance, McFadden said he used to have a thriving pizza trade is his store due largely to Canadian customers, but that dropped off so much with the border closing that he no longer makes pizza.

Business ties between Lubec and Campobello Island mean a lot to those on both sides of the border, as do emotional connections, said Carol Dennison, chair of the Lubec Board of Selectman and operator of DownEast Charter Boat. Her boat tours take passengers around Passamaquoddy Bay, including – when the tide is right – Old Sow, the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere.

“We are integrally involved with Campobello Island,” Dennison said. “They are our brothers and sisters.”

Dennison said the tour boat didn’t operate last year due to the pandemic, and that she’s missed Canadian customers since restarting the operation in June.

“We don’t see any buses going through anymore,” said Dennison, who plans to investigate to see whether her business might qualify for a grant.

Aid would also be welcome in Madawaska, where cross-border business plunged after the pandemic hit, said Sharon Bouchier, executive director of the St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“We have lost so much during COVID and with the (Edmundston-Madawaska) bridge still being closed, it would definitely help,” she said

The border closing led many in Madawaska to realize just how interdependent their town was with Edmundston, New Brunswick. For instance, she said, Madawaska has no dry cleaner, so people would take their clothes to the dry cleaner in Edmundston, something they’ve been unable to do with the border closed.

Bouchier said Madawaskans also realized that they like the Chinese food in Edmundston better than the food in Maine, and vice versa.

The cross-border business maintained by the exemption allowing Canadians to come to the United States for essential items has helped some, she said, but American business owners learned they needed to help one another get through the prolonged border closing.

“The town is very supportive and the merchants sort of hung together,” Bouchier said.


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