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TOURISM, TRADE SLOWS

Canadian firms near the tense U.S. border are feeling a sharp slowdown, as tourism plunges and trade is tied up by lines at crossing points, business and government officials said Friday.

"Security has to be the No.1 concern for our American neighbors, but we have to work together for relative ease of movement," said Jim Flaherty, Ontario's finance minister. "Tens of thousands of jobs depend on trade . . . on both sides of the border."

Flaherty and Tim Hudak, Fort Erie's representative in the provincial government, met with business people at the Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce Friday to discuss border and business concerns.

The Niagara Peninsula is Canada's ground zero when it comes to the economic aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, Flaherty said, because of its large tourism industry and its close integration with the U.S. economy.

"There will continue to be significant economic impacts from the tragedies last week," he said.

On Friday afternoon, cars and trucks bound for Canada both faced a wait of 75 minutes, according to Canada Customs. Inspectors were checking identification of visitors and asking to see passports or birth certificates.

Traffic into Canada at Niagara border crossings fell 55 percent last week, said Eddie Lynn, president of the Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce.

"Obviously that affects us at the track and the bingo halls," he said.

At the Fort Erie Duty Free, sales were down 67 percent last week, general manager Chuck Loewen said.

"This week we see business coming back a little bit every day, but there's still a huge impact," he said.

At the Fort Erie Race Track and Slots, Sandra Moran of Blasdell was one of a sprinkling of U.S. visitors on Friday. Entering Canada is growing more difficult this week, she said, now that inspectors ask for identification documents.

"My birth certificate is 59 years old -- it's hard to read," she said.

Not just U.S. visitors are shying away, according to Canada businesses. International visitors wary of air travel are also canceling their travel plans.

Industries see their hopes for a streamlined border fading, as security concerns take precedence over commerce.

"We were hoping the border would just go away, like in Europe," said Anthony Rodway, president of Aero-Safe Technologies in Fort Erie. A U.S. customer visiting the aircraft component company was nearly turned away at the border because he lacked a passport, he said.

But instead of raising border hurdles, the current congestion should give a push to long-discussed ideas to streamline the border, Flaherty said, such as remote customs at spots away from the border. Such ideas can speed crossing without compromising security, he said.

"Pre-clearance isn't a radical idea -- we do it at airports," Flaherty said.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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