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Maine border town that relied on Canadian customers is feeling the pandemic’s economic fallout

HOULTON, Maine — The towns of Houlton and Woodstock sit roughly 15 miles apart, and in many ways are quite indistinguishable from each other. But Houlton is located in the United States, while Woodstock is in Canada.

It was commonplace to see residents of both towns visiting each other and spending money on goods and services before the COVID-19 pandemic. Woodstock, New Brunswick, residents often traveled to Houlton to find better deals on things like gasoline and dairy products, which cost much more in Canada. Houlton residents would travel to Canada to shop for products not available in the United States, like King Cole Tea.

The pandemic changed all of that.The Canada-U.S. border has been closed for an unprecedented 10 months, disturbing practically all of the traffic flow between the nations. The impact has been felt in Houlton, particularly since some of the larger stores such as Marden’s and Irving Big Stop had a significant Canadian clientele prior to the pandemic.

“It’s tough on people,” Jane Torres said. She leads the Houlton Chamber of Commerce and also served as town manager when the pandemic first struck. “It’s tough when we’re such a close-knit community with Woodstock.”

The closure of the border and subsequent loss of business comes at a time when Houlton, which once had twice the population of Woodstock, seems to be diminishing in comparison. The most recently available data suggests that Woodstock households have a higher median household income at around $39,500 ($50,496 in Canadian dollars), while Houlton’s median household income was around $35,000.

Houlton’s population is declining at a much greater rate than that of its Canadian neighbor as well. According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Houlton’s population was estimated to be at 5,752 people, a 6.1 percent decrease from census numbers in 2010. In contrast, Woodstock’s population has remained stable between the most recent estimates, with a 2016 census from Statistics Canada putting the population at 5,228 — a decline of just 26 people (0.5 percent) from a census done five years earlier.

Woodstock residents are also more likely to have completed higher education than their American counterparts. While definitions of post-secondary education differ slightly between the two countries, 39 percent of Woodstock residents have completed college or university education, while only 22 percent of Houlton area residents have an associate’s degree or higher.

Woodstock Mayor Art Slipp attributed the younger and more educated population to the existence of New Brunswick Community College’s Woodstock campus, which keeps a stable group of young people and trains them in jobs such as health care. He also credited the provincial and federal governments’ promotion of immigration in helping to keep the population stable.

“We have a tremendous number [of immigrants] here that are in the trucking industry, and also come as seasonal agricultural workers,” Slipp said. “We do have job opportunities here, in the trucking industry, in metal fabricating industries, and obviously in agriculture.”

Economic fallout from the border closure also is more likely to affect Houlton. New Brunswickers were more likely to cross into Houlton to find better deals on dairy, gasoline and poultry products, but closure of the border has meant those purchases have had to stay within Canada. Black Friday deals in the United States were also a popular shopping time for Canadians in Houlton, but that too was postponed last year.

“Historically, we would have had numerous people visiting Houlton, and probably as far south as Portland, during the Black Friday extravaganzas,” Slipp said. “So that money has stayed here in Canada, and a lot has been spent locally.”

But while economically Houlton has seen a bigger impact from the pandemic, it’s also been able to receive more federal and state funding to help relieve its business woes. Federal programs such as the CARES Act, and state organizations such as the Northern Maine Development Corporation, have provided numerous grants to help the town of Houlton weather the fallout.

“CARES Act came out with some grants, and they were very generous,” Torres said. “And then we got a call from NMDC, and they said ‘Hey, we’ve got some extra money, we’re going to write everybody a check.’ So that’s a huge deal in keeping us going.”

By contrast, while Woodstock received some federal funding from the Canadian government’s Safe Restart Program, it did not qualify for employment programs meant to directly subsidize business and employers.

The two towns have also had different approaches to preventing the spread of COVID-19, with the Canadian side recording far fewer cases. New Brunswick has recorded a total of 973 cases since the start of the pandemic, which is fewer than the total cases in Aroostook County alone, which has recorded 996 total cases as of Jan. 18. Maine as a total has recorded more than 32,000 positive cases.

Helen Stewart lives in the New Brunswick city of Miramichi, but has relatives who live in both Woodstock and Houlton, and frequently travels across the border to visit. Stewart holds dual citizenship for the U.S. and Canada, allowing her to cross the border even during the pandemic, following a quarantine period.

Most of New Brunswick is considered an “orange” zone, meaning that people cannot even travel out to meet up with friends. Under orange, New Brunswickers cannot travel to another residence such as those of friends, but essential travel, carpooling with masks and small outdoor gatherings are allowed. But Stewart said she prefers Canada’s stricter measures than the more relaxed ones in the United States in helping keep cases low.

“I think the United States could be a little bit more stricter. They’re a little bit too liberal with letting people about,” she said. “People don’t take their social distancing seriously, and they don’t wear a mask as good as they should. Although I have noticed recently they are starting to do it a bit more.”

Stewart said that while she finds Houlton to be a cozy, picturesque town, there aren’t as many shopping opportunities for her in Houlton as she finds on her own side of the border.

“They have such a nice location right there where people cross the border,” Stewart said of Houlton. “But they’re not using what they have. They could upgrade it and put more stores in there. I don’t know if it would ever happen, but it would be nice if it did.”