INTERNATIONAL FALLS -- Rick Swatek has a plan: Use one of the nation's most horrible tragedies to rejuvenate a remote Minnesota county that has been dying a slow economic death during the past 20 years.
In that time, Koochiching County's population dropped 18 percent, job growth remained stagnant and most young people left.
But the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks could help change all that. New federal requirements since the attacks have made Minnesota's busiest border crossing a player in national security and, community leaders hope, a Mecca for new business.
Worried that future terrorists might enter the United States through Canada, the federal government is tripling security personnel along the border. Most are currently in training, but the International Falls border station expects up to 70 new workers, including U.S. Customs, Immigration, and Border Patrol agents. The government also plans to add two large X-ray machines to scan rail cars and trucks as they cross into the United States.
The heightened awareness got Swatek, hired two years ago as the county's first economic development director, thinking about ways to turn the tragedy into a positive.
Swatek thought the county had failed to take advantage of the Canadian National Railway, which ships cargo from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Chicago. Along that route, the trains are forced to make only one stop -- about three miles east of International Falls in Ranier, where a U.S. Customs station checks cargo. Instead of benefiting Koochiching County, the goods continue on to Chicago -- the Midwest's largest distribution center -- for repackaging or assembly.
"There's over a billion dollars worth of commerce rolling through our community without touching us or the state of Minnesota," Swatek said.
To make use of the border pit stop, Swatek and county leaders want to designate 660 acres southeast of the railway as a foreign trade zone, which would allow foreign businesses to move goods into the United States at reduced cost.
Swatek envisions companies building warehouses or plants near International Falls to assemble or store goods instead of sending them directly to Chicago's foreign trade zone, which typically overflows with cargo. He said the wide-open spaces of Koochiching County are an ideal spillover for products that might otherwise be caught in a logjam in Chicago. Besides, Swatek said, they already have to stop at the border, so why not unload while they're at it?
"As a community, if you're going to grow and try to find ways to create economic development you have to look at what's unique about your community and (the border crossing) is what's unique about us," said International Falls Mayor Harry Swendsen.
The area also has other advantages: an airport, a new high-speed telecommunications network, low cost of living and inexpensive labor.
"Our cost of land and our cost of labor is substantially cheaper than it is in Chicago," Swatek said. Those two advantages coupled with the foreign trade zone creates distinct opportunities for CEOs and shareholders.
The FTZs are commerce sites set up in or near U.S. Customs ports of entry where merchandise is considered legally outside U.S. Customs territory. A business can use FTZs to reduce duty payments and streamline supply chain costs.
To many, the county has already won. The security jobs, with starting salaries between $27,000 and $33,000, have already begun providing a significant boost to the job market. Since Sept. 11, U.S. Customs and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials have reported hundreds of applicants for the positions, mostly from Koochiching County.
Many International Falls natives have been clamoring for such an opportunity.
John Cann has been in love with the area's beauty and remote location since he was a kid. But he also knows how hard it is to get a good job here, especially if the area's largest employer, the Boise Corp. paper mill, isn't hiring.
Cann spent 10 years as a "duck out of water" in the Twin Cities, working as a teacher in Burnsville. Eventually, Cann, 41, found his way home with a job as an insurance agent for American Family in International Falls.
Cann said he knows dozens of former classmates and relatives who would jump at the chance to come back. Their reason is the same as his: "This is where I want my kids to grow up."
"It's sad that it took misfortune to create opportunity," said Amy Hardwig-Eberspacher, who also grew up in and moved back to International Falls. "But we need a positive impact. We need jobs."
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