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Customs cuts seen as threat to Duluth port

Cuts in the staffing of Duluth's U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations could jeopardize the city's future as an international port and handler of cross-border air traffic.

For Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, a letter he received from the local Customs office this summer drove home the danger. Ojard felt local customs operations already were thinly staffed when he learned that an agent was retiring and there were no plans to replace him. The Duluth Customs office was to go from having five agents to just two agents and a supervisor.

"I was advised that at the current staffing levels, we could no longer expect seamless service," Ojard recalled.

The idea of forced delays alarmed Ojard, who pointed out that when a ship is forced to sit idle it can easily cost the operator $2,000 to $3,000 an hour in additional operational expenses. He said there's also the issue of opportunity costs to consider, as a ship delayed en route to its next destination can miss out on work it would otherwise have received.

If foreign-flagged vessels regularly encounter delays in the Twin Ports, Ojard says the port runs the distinct risk of losing business as a result.

Mike Magni, president of Monaco Air Duluth, the fixed-base operator at Duluth International Airport, has similar concerns. Monaco has been marketing itself as a stop-over for international and even transcontinental flights. Chief among the advantages the company boasts over other fueling and service centers is its quick turnaround time.

"It would only take one or two denied flights for word to get around and our business to dry up," Magni said.

That would be a shame for Duluth, which has gone from handling fewer than two dozen international corporate jets a year to nearly 300 since Monaco came to town a few years ago.

Magni praised local Customs agents for their responsiveness to date, but he worries they are being stretched too far.

In addition to covering Duluth International Airport and the waterfront, local Customs agents also serve Sky Harbor Airport, Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

Upon further review, Customs did replace one of its recent local retirees, keeping three agents on the job. But Ojard is still nervous as the Twin Ports enter fall -- far and away its busiest season for saltie traffic.

As the busiest port on the Great Lakes, in terms of overall tonnage handled, the Twin Ports received 1,237 vessels in 2007, 450 of which required clearance from U.S. Customs agents.

Both Congressman Jim Oberstar and Sen. Norm Coleman have intervened, asking for more Customs staff in Duluth.

On Wednesday, Coleman sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham that said: "The city of Duluth has worked hard to position Duluth International Airport and Duluth-Superior Harbor as a gateway to the region. It is the regional hub for Northeastern Minnesota and a secure and efficient airport and seaport will continue to foster positive economic growth and benefit the city and the region."