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Making the U.S.-Canada border less of a barrier

As executive director of the Binational Alliance, Arlene White looks at the U.S.-Canada border and sees growth potential. Her organization's goal is to break down barriers to cross-border trade and tourism.

She says the two countries have much to capitalize on together, instead of competing with each other. The Fort Erie, Ont., resident applies the binational approach to her job, splitting time between offices in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Ont.

>Q: How can this region take better ?advantage of its international setting?

A: It's not just about who's going to get the most out of this, but if you really look at this region, and the assets and the value of this region, our biggest strength is our location. Because you can't get this in too many other places in the world. And to have this kind of a region, and only be using foreign exchange [rates] or market circumstances for one side to get something better than the other, it's a no-win game.

To really look at our strengths and build on those joint assets or the things that fill each other's gaps, which we have done much better than any other cross-border region in North America, that's where our strength, and the long-term ability to make people understand that, really lies.

>Q: How busy are this region's bridge crossings?

A: Our border study we did last year finally proved once and for all it's the Niagara border crossings that are the busiest Northern border crossings, hands down. So people always talk about Detroit-Windsor, but Detroit-Windsor is only busier than us in terms of commercial [traffic], not in total. In terms of total, we're the pipeline. We're the lifeline for most of North America. But making people understand that can be challenging.

>Q: How did the Alliance get started?

A: It was April 2004 on the U.S. side that we were incorporated as a not-for-profit, and it took until April of 2005 [in Canada] because the Canadian process is a little bit different. We've always operated as one organization, recognizing our reporting requirements on both sides of the border.

But we've always had one board of directors, and we've always had to have a majority of one Canadian, to fulfill the Canadian requirements.

Before we incorporated in April 2004, we did our due diligence and we went out and said [to stakeholders], we've worked with all of you for three years. … Are we duplicating anything anyone else is doing? Would you support formalization of this organization on a membership basis? It was unanimous. ...There really is no organization like ours.

>Q: What is the reality of cross-border traffic versus the perceptions?

A: That's why we did that study that we did. We started in 2009, because the (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, with stricter documentation rules) was implemented fully June of that year. So obviously everybody in this area was worried about it.

We did see [traffic] numbers falling off. But what we wanted to find out is, how much was WHTI and how much was other economic impact factors? SARS hit us in 2003. We had West Nile virus, we had gas prices hike, we had foreign currency change. There were a ton of things that happened, plus the global market was changing rapidly. We undertook this study with Deloitte following a preliminary market study that we arranged to interview 400 residents on either side of the border, asking them, do you have the right identification, and why are you not crossing the border? We only wanted to talk to people who had not crossed the border for at least a year.

What came through overwhelmingly was, they were worried about the experience that they were going to have at the bridge crossings, but they also had fewer and fewer reasons to cross the border because no one was reaching out to them anymore through marketing. So those were the top priorities that came up.

>What is an example of how the Alliance is trying to stimulate cross-border business?

A: The Global Gateway Export Financing Series is focusing on those specific [economic development] sectors, bringing together the owners of companies and the business leaders that are decision makers to meet each other. The last one that we did, we had Moog and Girotti Machine, two examples of dynamic companies. Girotti Machine has been around for 65 years in St. Catharines. Moog has been around forever in this area... It's not big conferences and summits anymore, but smaller clusters of these sector partners working together.