At the Northern border Empty businesses, tough times

“It has been looking grim,” said Steve Nadeau, the owner of Trombino’s, a restaurant in Massena, which has seen a drop in Canadian customers in recent years. Libby March/New York Times

MASSENA — Those who know Steven Nadeau, a restaurant owner in this town near the Canadian border, like to joke that his place is internationally renowned. A decade ago, the crispy wings and deep dish pizza were so popular among his northern neighbors that he bought a second cash box for Canadian dollars.

But these days, the tin box sits empty, and the restaurant, Trombino’s, is struggling to stay open. Nadeau counts himself lucky, though — down the road, an eerie stillness has enveloped a mall where most of the stores closed after Canadians stopped coming to shop.

“I always assumed we’ll get through the tough periods, but it has been looking grim,” Nadeau said. “I remember when Massena was the economic engine of the entire county. Now it’s a shadow of what it used to be.”

In this stretch along New York’s northern edge, Canadian buyers once offered a lifeline to small businesses as the local population declined, generating more than a third of the economy in Massena and more than half in the nearby town of Malone, according to their chambers of commerce.

But since 2014, the number of passenger vehicles traveling through the Massena border crossing has dropped by almost a quarter, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While the falling value of the Canadian dollar has hastened the decline, shopkeepers and local officials also point to another culprit: tighter federal immigration enforcement over the past two years.

Those efforts largely have been aimed at the southern border, but crossing between the United States and Canada has also become more cumbersome, they said.

“We need the Canadians to be able to cross freely and without harassment,” said Mary Scarf, president of the Malone Chamber of Commerce. “They are being treated like criminals, not like the interdependent friends and trading partners that we have always been.”

At the Northern border Empty businesses, tough times

Five businesses have closed in Malone in the past six months, according to its Chamber of Commerce. Libby March/New York Times

Enforcement along the northern border has drawn attention in both countries. Last year, the Canadian government criticized the more aggressive efforts by Customs and Border Protection agents off the coast of Maine; earlier this year, the transfer of U.S. border agents from the north to the south stirred a bipartisan outcry from U.S. lawmakers who feared it would worsen wait times at crossings in northern states.

The northern border is the longest land boundary between two countries in the world, with about 400,000 people and over $1.6 billion in goods crossing through it daily. Customs and Border Protection officials disputed claims that it has gotten tougher to travel across it.

“As far as our enforcement posture, nothing has changed,” said Aaron Bowker, a supervisory Customs and Border Protection officer in Buffalo.

In most populated U.S. areas near the border, which generally cater to vacationers or benefit from proximity to large Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, the biggest complaints about immigration enforcement have been delays for tourists and more complicated visa processes for businesses.

But the economic stability of some small border towns in upstate New York has hinged on luring a steady stream of Canadians to their Main Street businesses.

Decades ago, the area around Massena and Malone was a booming industrial belt home to companies such as Reynolds and General Motors. By the time GM closed its doors in Massena in 2009, the region had deteriorated into a string of struggling small towns, home to an aging population with little spendable income.

Just across the Canadian border is Cornwall, a growing manufacturing city with a population of about 50,000. Those consumers once made regular trips to Massena and Malone to shop in U.S. grocery stores, pick up Amazon packages that would ship only within the United States and eat the chicken wings at Trombino’s.

“I could get food for my kids that we didn’t have here,” said Alyssa Baird Payette, 36, a mother of two who lives in Cornwall. “The clothing stores there always had more options.”

At the Northern border Empty businesses, tough times

Traffic has fallen nearly 25 percent since 2014 on the bridge that links Massena and the city of Cornwall in Ontario. Libby March/New York Times

The mall that now sits nearly empty had been constructed with Canadian shoppers in mind, said Jim Murphy, the executive director of the Business Development Corp. in Massena.

But as the value of the Canadian dollar began to fall in 2013, U.S. goods became more expensive for Canadians, and Baird Payette — like many of her neighbors — visited the United States less frequently, she said.

Then stories began spreading in the past two years of Canadians who were stopped at the border for hours for seemingly innocuous reasons such as carrying produce or misstating their reason for visiting. Many stopped coming altogether.

“I think I’ve gone once in the last year. It’s just not worth it anymore,” said Katie Digirolomo, 35, who said her husband had been repeatedly stopped when he tried to go to a casino across the border.

Those anecdotes of everyday inconvenience joined a series of high-profile incidents at the northern border, which have spread among Canadians like cautionary tales.

In July last year, a Canadian yarn vendor traveling to a knitting festival in Maryland said she lost $25,000 in fees after border patrol officers told her she had received the wrong visa and turned her away.

A month later, Canadian fishermen reported that border patrol agents were harassing them off the coast of Maine, provoking a show of force from the Canadian Coast Guard.

“It’s behavioral economics. When people hear of delays along the northern border, they adjust their economic behavior to avoid cross-border movement,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat representing western New York, which is home to the Peace Bridge, one of the busiest northern border crossings.

Voters in the counties around Massena and Malone lean conservative, but their opinions on the national debate over immigration policy often diverge from their views of freer movement across the northern border.

“I think that people in this area see the southern border as more of a threat for bringing in criminals. It’s a more dangerous border,” said Steven O’Shaughnessy, the town supervisor of Massena, who has lived in the town for 30 years. “But up here it’s more like one big neighborhood.”

Leaders in Massena are trying to address the economic downturn by formalizing ties between their town, Cornwall and a Mohawk reservation that straddles the border. They established the Tri-Chamber Alliance in 2017 to encourage residents to travel between the two countries and the reservation for events like pub nights and festivals.

The nascent effort draws on the model of cities with more established commercial ties to Canada. In nearby Plattsburgh, local leaders successfully marketed Clinton County to companies from neighboring Montreal, convincing them to set up subsidiaries on their side of the border. Canadian-based companies now employ 15% of the county’s residents, according to the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

“Most rural Rust Belt America towns have had a lot of trouble, but we’ve maintained our population solely because of our relationship with Canada,” said Colin L. Read, the mayor of Plattsburgh.

At the Northern border Empty businesses, tough times

Nancy Davis, owner of Nancy’s Cafe in Malone said her restaurant has lost half its customers because of tighter immigration control at the northern border. Libby March/New York Times

But for small business owners in Massena and Malone, efforts to lure large Canadian companies or resolve issues at the border may come too late. In Malone, five businesses have closed in the last six months alone, Scharf said.

One recent morning in Malone at Nancy’s Cafe, which has a countertop lined with fresh-baked berry pies and a seemingly endless supply of coffee, only two tables were occupied. The cafe’s owner, Nancy Davis, said that just two or three years ago, half her customers were Canadian.

“They kept us busy, especially Saturday mornings. Now half those customers aren’t coming,” Davis said. “What does that mean for our future? I don’t know.”

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(21) comments


NNY is dead. Population 1/2 is gone. Democratic leadership is your results.

Holmes -- the real one

"DJT" (which is hilarious in it's own right).


hermit thrush

nny is dominated by republicans. it has been since forever. downstate is where the democrats are. downstate is doing much better. what can you conclude from that?

Holmes -- the real one

Such a good question.

Why would anyone want to leave a Republican dominated area in beautiful upstate NY? Why do new businesses forego moving to the area? Why do young people move to the downstate Democrat dominated areas? So puzzling to Republicans.


This is where conspiracy theory comes in.


Let's all pretend that upstate New York is liberal! You are the Donald Trump party after all. Why look at reality when you can watch Fox News all day? Reality is triggering.

New York State's population has grown by one million in the last ten years. The liberal areas are booming, the conservative areas are dying. Facts don't care about your feelings.


You democratic fools!!!!! NAFTA killed our industries by the demorats leadership. NYS is loosing thousands a year. Massena has lost almost half the population and taxes keep going up?????? Government is almost bankrupt as taxpayers can no longer pay the insane taxes. Time to run from NNY and NYS.

Holmes -- the real one

Well "DJT" a impersonator, I presume.

Your namesake just moved to FL. I guess we can assume you will too.

Have a great life.

hermit thrush

you republican fool! nafta was bipartisan, but republicans were more behind it than democrats were.


Yes, let's blame democrats for NAFTA!

Sure, Democrats voted against the bill, but Bill Clinton signed the Republican bill. NAFTA was 100% a Republican idea, and the hilarity is that you will say you want a democrat who will work with Republicans. Then you blame Democrats for Republican ideas.


I only ever went the Canada once (last year), but my father tells me it used to be very easy to go up there and back, even if for no particular reason. He said before 9/11 there was barely any delay at all and it has steadily gotten more annoying since then.


After 9/11 our Republican friends were so eager to give up their Constitutional rights they were willing to drop their drawers at anything the government wanted. This resulted in "border" checkpoints in the middle of New York State. Since drivers didn't expect to come to a complete stop for a government checkpoint in the middle of I-81 or Route 11 drivers would plow into them. Border Patrol in our area has caused more deaths than they they prevented. Facts don't care about Republican cowardice.

Holmes -- the real one

" “As far as our enforcement posture, nothing has changed,” said Aaron Bowker, a supervisory Customs and Border Protection officer in Buffalo."

That is simply false. Much has changed -- for those people coming from Canada and those Americans coming back from Canada. The posture of the "Border Protection" personnel is often cold and confrontational. It was not like that before Trump.


Not true..


Holmes, the original comment said that much has changed and that border patrol didn't behave the way they do before Trump. This is TRUE! The article you quoted is about ILLEGAL immigration - people sneaking across unoccupied parts of the border - NOT people coming through the LEGAL routes! Did you even read the article you quoted? ALSO, it said that illegal immigration was up, BUT they only caught 445 people versus 182 at the same time the prior year! THAT MEANS we are talking about 263 PEOPLE! That is MINUSCULE in comparison to all of the people who crossed the border LEGALLY AND a MINUSCULE amount PERIOD!

The simple truth is that Trump has made it extremely hard for businesses in northern border states to attract customers because border patrol officials ARE more aggressive! They are also profiling people! I actually had a border patrol agent treat me horribly when I was polite and nice. The agent asked me why I was traveling. I explained with a smile on my face that I was just going for a drive and to go to a few stores. He actually searched my vehicle like I was a criminal and I'M AN AMERICAN! I NEVER had that happen at that border crossing before trump! Their attitudes are different now. They make people feel horrible and it absolutely has been something that has SIGNIFICANTLY curtailed my travel in between the US & Canada via car! That means that I don't go to the little shops on BOTH sides of the border like I used to. There is a CLEAR difference for people who used to do it regularly! Sad.

Holmes -- the real one

Absolutely true hatetoregister -- and yes, sad.

The people who seek those jobs now are by and large, people who wanted to be police but would not be able to qualify. I have been consulted by ICE and Border Control personnel regarding applications from individuals I have interacted with (in a professional capacity) in the past. These were not, by any means, ideal candidates for this kind of work. Sadly, I do not know whether they were hired or not.

As to the "fake Holmes" comment, my suspicion is that there is simply a logic gap. From my own past experience with this individual, actually reading the article in question rarely (if ever) precedes a comment so there's that. Then, something like the, "nothing has changed" quotation I made probably triggered the fear and resentment thing and the reply comment was off and running. There is no evidence that the commenter ever actually reads what gets "cited" in their own "documentation" for that opinion. Once, when the same individual was writing under a different pseudonym, the citation had a headline that seemed to possibly agree with the comment but the text of the cited material actually contradicted what the commenter was saying.

Trump is (quite obviously) not a reader and most of his supporters aren't either. Use of logic among that group follows the same trajectory.


You are also forgetting that it is also harder for our colleges to attract international students.

Trump and his supporters are horrible in every way for the North Country. Thos kinds of attitudes are why our young people move away.


A real problem in the North Country, you know all the people who have been hurt by these illegal immigrants in Srt. Lawrence County?

Wait, nobody has been hurt. It is almost like President Draft-Dodger is playing you like a fool.


I wonder if Canadian marijuana legalization has anything to do with it. Maybe they suspect Americans of going up there to get high, or even import something.


No, that has nothing to do with it. Marijuana is legal is Massachusetts and Vermont where there is no border check.

This has 100% to do with Republican paranoia.


Since the 9/11 bombings the Border Patrol and U.S Customs have been out of control. I spent 30 years crossing into Canada to go to Montreal. Entering Canada was and still is pleasant. Returning to my OWN COUNTRY has been a very unpleasant experience. Angry, pugnacious, arrogant U.S. Border Gestapo has resulted in many fewer trips to Canada. In addition it is very heartbreaking to see people of color being sent to secondary interviewing/examination almost every time I have been returning.

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