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Cross-border commerce and the 2010 Olympics

The current highway and crossing at Blaine, with redesign in red. Credit: WSDOT

As Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics heads into the second phase of its race to the deadline of Feb. 12, 2010, financing is dicey thanks to the world’s economic crash and the role played by hedge funds in financing for the Olympics. Sponsors are looking at their hole cards, and the City of Vancouver has loaned $100 million (more) to the Games. South of the border, business interests are hoping that Phase 2 has more for them than did Phase 1.

That initial phase, the major construction and infrastructure contracts, was held close to the Canadian chest; Northwest Washington businesses gained only a tiny fraction of the contracts on offer. Only half-a-dozen Seattle-area firms signed contracts, and nearly all the work was for consulting. 4Culture, the Seattle non-profit, was consultant on public art for the speed-skating oval and the Olympic Village, and Sparling is providing the audio for the Vancouver Convention Center.

In the next phase, and in the Games itself, there is greater hope for a slice of the Olympic pie. Contracts will be smaller, largely for services, and Olympics sponsors are shopping south of the Peace Arch. Brian Krieger, director of the 2010 Commerce Centre for the 2010 Olympics, recently urged a group of Bellingham-area business leaders to get into the bidding game for the 2,000 contracts for services and supplies that remain to be let, totaling some $1 billion. “There is no border,” in terms of procurement, he noted, adding that only 72 Washington businesses are listed on an Olympics database of 3,400 companies.

Small businesses in Northwest Washington do look north, but largely to see how they can attract Canadians south of the border. The Olympics calls for a new way of thinking, but some of the same trade barriers are present for the Olympics, as with the traditional business model.

When business people in the “far northwest” corner talk about dealing with Canada, the discussion always starts with two barriers they cannot control: the currency exchange rate and the Peace Arch border crossing.

A strong U.S. dollar makes American offerings less attractive to Canadians, and a clogged border is bad news for everyone. The dollar, as of Monday, was at $1.23 to the Canadian dollar, after a year of rapid fluctuation that saw it at par only weeks ago.

When it comes to planning for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the event is too distant to worry about the currency rate, but there is plenty of concern about the border, which is presently a maze of construction, detours, and temporary facilities.

February border traffic is normally much slower than summer crossings; in February 2008, 474,791 vehicles crossed at Blaine, compared to 708,078 in August 2008. But the Olympics will approach summertime pressure for the Winter Games Feb. 12-28 and Paralympics March 12-21. Attendance estimates vary widely; a million people attended the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. The Whatcom County Council of Governments estimates that 450,000 spectators are expected for the two events and an estimated 175,000 will drive north into Canada on the I-5 freeway.

The good news is that the border should soon get better — much better — on the Canadian side. A huge remodel of the Canadian entry port is scheduled to be complete by fall 2009, well in time for the Olympics.

Southbound, drivers entering the United States will face temporary entry stations, although construction on I-5 lanes should be completed by October 2009. The Peace Arch crossing is being rebuilt to handle 10 lanes, but not all will be complete by Olympics’ time, according to the General Services Administration, and at least two portables will be installed. Extra border guards are promised, and everyone is hoping to escape security incidents like those that have clogged the border intermittently since 2001.

Countering the bad news of construction delays is the good news that new identity technology will be well tested by 2010, and should speed the entry process. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol announced Tuesday that its new Radio Frequency Identification program (RFID) is operational at both the Peace Arch and Pacific Crossings at Blaine, along with two ports of entry in Nogales, Ariz. The RFID allows travelers with electronic-chip cards to proceed more swiftly, much as NEXUS cards now allow fast-lane service. Washington’s enhanced driver’s license (35,000 have been issued) and a passport card issued by the State Department (523,000 have been issued) qualify for the RFID program. Canada is reportedly looking at similar enhanced cards.

Both Vancouver and northwest Washington will actually begin seeing traffic from sporting games well before the 2010 Olympics. The 2009 World Police and Fire Games (WPFG) is in Vancouver July 31 to Aug. 9, with up to 10,000 competitors and thousands of family members making the trip during the height of summer season. The WPFG is a non-profit operated since 1985 offering police officers, firefighters, and customs and correction officers from around the world an opportunity to showcase their athletic excellence in more than 65 sporting events. Vancouver hosted the biennial games in 1991.

Coming at the height of the summer tourist season, the WPFG will stress Vancouver lodgings and send the overflow south, closer to the normal paradigm of Canadian-related business for northwestern Washington.

Bookings are already arriving for the WPFG and advance workers for the 2010 Olympics, according to the Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council. The Olympics will mean additional border-security and transportation workers who will need lodging, gasoline, food, and other travel necessities.

Displaced recreationists make up a large segment of Phase 3 — the actual Games — as skiers, snowboarders, and others find their favorite haunts tied up by the world’s athletes through much of February and March. Many will drift south to Mt. Baker or the ski resorts near Seattle.

Perhaps the best bet to benefit from Olympics-related traffic is the Mt. Baker Ski Resort, a pilgrimage for snowboarders, where the first Legendary Banked Slalom Race for ‘boarders was held 22 years ago. This year’s Slalom will be Feb. 6-8, and the 2010 event will be scheduled to coordinate with the Olympics, which will likely increase Baker’s draw for world-class snowboarders and a host of wannabes, as well as Olympics spectators who might hang around for a chance to try their own skills on Baker’s powder. The slope is highly regarded by ski and snowboard aficionados, and has five-star ratings for both expert and advanced skiers on

To catch the Olympics’ fever, Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum of History and Art is planning a large snowboard history exhibit, two full floors of boards, photos and other memorabilia that focuses on Mt. Baker’s pioneering role in snowboarding. The exhibit runs from November 2009 through April 2010.

The rapid growth of snowboarding and Mt. Baker’s role is already attracting inquiries from international media, says Gwyen Howat of Mt. Baker, and the ski resort may find itself featured in “sidebar” stories offered by Olympics broadcasters and reporters to fill out events coverage. The media attention would be relatively new to a resort sometimes described as an unsung jewel for winter sports.

For most of the rest of Northwest Washington, it appears any business gains will come from Phase 3, primarily from travelers passing through or people pushed out of their normal winter recreation sites by the Olympics. Services and supplies are on offer from the Olympics, but Washington economic development agencies report little activity by their members. Just Tuesday, the Olympics posted a request for bids for hundreds of portable toilets and washrooms, challenging cross-border bidders to deal with the 74-page form and, of course, the border challenge of all those outhouses.

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