Point Roberts’ only grocery store isn’t threatening to close if the border doesn’t re-open by May, but its owner sure would like to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
It was on Ali Hayton’s birthday when the US-Canada border closed for non-essential travel back in March. At the time, she never would have believed her store would still have no Canadian customers 10 months later.
“I remember the first thing I said was I was so glad this is March and not July (our busiest time of the year). Nobody could have predicted this,” said Hayton.
The International Marketplace is currently running at 45-to-50 percent below its typical business at this time of year. That number dropped to 70-to-80 percent last summer when the store benefits from Canadians at their vacation homes and the peak time for those quick trips across the border for cheap gas, dairy products and wine.
The drop in business meant Hayton had to lay-off three employees for the first time in her 24-year career, even though she hasn’t given herself a salary since the pandemic impacted the border.
The closure of the Banner Bank inside the store in December was another hit to the bottom line and other businesses are not exactly lining up to lease the vacant space. Hayton even considered closing on Sundays at one point but didn’t want to take that option away from residents, deciding on an earlier daily closing time instead.
“Most of my customers have nowhere to go right now, so I kind of have a captive audience, but my store is also 40,000 square feet built to serve 8,000 people a week, not the 1,400 we are getting now,” she said. “We have been trying to do as much as we can. I’m working on a community corner (inside the store) for like the little bakery that had to shutdown. If she could bake her goods twice a week and bring them into the store I will sell them for her. We are also working on a platform for our website right now for people to be able request special items.”
Hayton admits she is concerned when she hears about the Canadian and US governments potentially agreeing on a system that would allow Point Roberts’ residents to regularly get through the Canadian border if they were going directly to the Peace Arch crossing. She says such a deal would have to go both ways to at least allow Canadian property owners to cross the border again.
“Right now they can go on the (free) foot ferry (service to Bellingham) and all they can bring back is what they can carry, she said. “If they create that ability to get to Costco with their car or Winco without getting my (Canadian customers) back down here, then it would not be worth it for me and I would have to close. Then they would have to let (Point Roberts) residents into Canada to get everything they need.
“I’m not saying open the border to let every single Canadian come down, but people who own their homes, have businesses, have packages, if they could just do a rapid (COVID-19) test at the border. Even if we get say an extra 1,000 people a week it would totally stimulate the economy.”
Hayton adds she appreciates the compliments the store has received from its customers as the store navigates its way through the pandemic with hopefully brighter days ahead.
“We just don’t depend on Canadians. We depend on the people that live here,” she added. “It’s those Canadians that makes the business worthwhile.”