Borderline successes: Life in Point Bob

They sell gas by the liter and thrive when the Canadian dollar is booming; Welcome to a business climate with its own unique culture…

Heidi Schiller
   Passing the border from Blaine into British Columbia on the way to Point Roberts requires a psychological transition that encompasses more than just an mph-to-kph mental switch.
   Almost as soon as Washington drivers adjust to whizzing past Tim Hortons’ and White Spot restaurants, unfamiliar landscape and flashing freeway lights, they hand over their passports once again — for the second time in an hour — at the parochial brown and white Point Roberts Border Crossing back into the United States.
   Hugged by water on three sides, with the Strait of Georgia to the west and Boundary Bay to the east, and the town of Tsawwassen, British Columbia, to the north, the peninsula is unincorporated, so the community has no mayor or city council. Instead, Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce acts as the community’s defacto organizing body.
   The Whatcom County outpost’s unique location, which locals refer to as The Point, poses some challenges for its business owners and 1,306 residents, from cranky Canadians to border bungles.

The Canadian Invasion
   Business boomed for The Point during its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, when British Columbia’s now defunct “blue laws,” which restricted the sale of liquor on Sundays, made the nearby American peninsula a resort destination, according to Emily Smith, chamber of commerce president and co-owner of Whalen’s Park, a campground and RV park.
   “It was the Las Vegas of British Columbia,” she said.
   Since then, business has slowed down after the end of blue laws and, more recently, because of 9/11’s repercussions, said Reid Smith, Emily’s husband and co-owner of Whalen’s Park.
   “Now we’ve turned into a very sleepy community,” Emily said. “We’re more of a summer getaway, and business is very seasonal.”
   In fact, 62 percent of Point Roberts households are used for seasonal, recreational or occasional use, according to the U.S. Census.
   Emily and Reid, originally from Seattle, along with their two sons, are among the few year-round residents. The young couple moved to Point Roberts three years ago to buy Whalen’s Park, located on the eastern shore of the peninsula along Maple Beach, where shingled cottages with wide verandas and weathered Adirondack chairs line curving waterfront streets.
   Almost all of their guests at the RV park and campground are Canadian. They said they only get a few American tourists per summer.
   More than 100 businesses are registered with The Point’s chamber of commerce, and most of them rely on Canadian tourism.
   The Canadian tourists aren’t just day-trippers; many stay the whole summer and own a majority of The Point’s homes, Emily said.
   The Canadian dollar, therefore, has an immense effect on the local economy, and most businesses list their prices in Canadian dollar amounts.
   “I watch (the Canadian dollar) every day,” Reid said. “I’m all for a strong Canadian dollar.”

Mark Furno — behind the bar at his Point Roberts restaurant, Dockside Pub & Cafe — said roughly 75 percent of his customers are Canadian.

    Mark Furno, owner of the Dockside Pub & Café near The Point’s 1,000-slip marina, said while Canadian customers constitute a majority of his business, sometimes there is a culture clash. They often get frustrated, he said, when they come to Point Roberts assuming everything will be cheaper when in fact, goods and services tend to cost more than in other Whatcom County locations because of shipping hurdles.
   “They think this is Baja Canada,” he said.
   Roughly 75 percent of his customers are Canadian, he said, but it used to be more like 85 percent before 9/11.
   Because of his Canadian customers’ generally milder palates, Furno has had to tame down the spices he serves at his seafood restaurant, where he sells about 200 pounds of halibut a week to Canadian customers who have trouble getting the fish in Canada.
   While doing business with Canadians has its challenges, most of the peninsula’s business owners enjoy their across-the-border bread-and-butter, Emily said.
   “We really do have a cross culture here,” she said. “But that’s the appeal. It doesn’t feel like Canada or the U.S. It just feels like Point Roberts.”
   Lately, a major draw for Canadians is The Point’s cluster of five gas stations, which seem to constitute the peninsula’s only central hub.
   “Canadians will actually sit in a border line for an hour just to get gas,” Emily said.
   For that reason, gas prices are quoted in liters, instead of gallons.
   “They can save about $20 to $30 a tank,” Furno said.

Border Issues
   Point Roberts may be one of the only Whatcom County communities where the day’s business is so heavily reliant on the morning’s news headlines.
   The border wait is usually only five minutes, unless there are reports of any kind of world terrorism in the news, and then it can be much longer, Emily said.
   Smart residents have a Nexus pass, which allows for speedier border crossings for people who make the trip often. Reid uses his about once a week for traveling to Seattle to do business, where most of his clients live. Reid is a CFA who works from home most of the time, and almost all of his clients live outside of Point Roberts up and down the West Coast.
   Because of the four border crossings involved in a round trip from the U.S. mainland to The Point, getting supplies poses a challenge to many of the community’s business owners, especially for its restaurants and grocery store.
   Despite the occasional delays and costliness caused by the borders, Furno has most of his food shipped from Seattle, as importing from just across the border in Tsawwassen is a major hassle, with all the duties and inspection checks the importing process requires.
   The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has also had a huge impact on Point Roberts border issues, which affects how many Canadians are allowed in. Now there are far more stringent rules about the border, whereas before 9/11, the border patrol was more relaxed and more localized.
   “D.C. is not going to spend time thinking about Point Roberts,” Emily said. “And that can be frustrating.”

The Business of Leisure
   Despite the border headaches, Point Roberts’ business culture is definitely one of leisure and often revolves around Canadian holidays, such as the tourist season’s kickoff on Victoria Day in May.
   “It’s a culture of relaxation,” Reid said. “There is no such thing as traffic here.”
   Like Reid, many year-round residents have online businesses and work from home, in addition to the tourism-related businesses.
   Art Salazar, a mortgage broker, has been doing business in Point Roberts since 1994, but lives in Lynden. He usually works from home and then drives up to the peninsula once a week, and said he enjoys its distinctly relaxing pace.
   “This to me is like a break from my job, but it is my job that is taking me up to the Point,” he said. “I guess you could call it mixing work with pleasure. I just love it.”
   He recalled one instance when a Texas couple vacationing in Point Roberts decided to purchase a house there before heading back home later in the day. But they wanted to spend the rest of their stay at the beach.
   “Duty came and I responded like I always do, and took the loan application right on the beach,” he said.
   Sometimes, Salazar said, he gets wrapped up in the dining, visiting with friends and meeting new people aspects of doing business on The Point.
   “You don’t feel the push and stress to beat the clock there,” he said.
   The Point has a post office, fire department, small airport and marina, but lacks a pharmacy or hospital. There is a K-3 public school, but the rest of the children either bus to Blaine, are homeschooled or attend private schools in Tsawwassen. There is no police department, but two Whatcom County Sheriff’s officers patrol this peninsula that many refer to as “the ultimate gated community.”
   The community may be revving up, however, with the increase in residential development that is being seen all over the county, Emily said. She thinks more American retirees are on the way.
   Reid agreed. “People like that Point Roberts is the world’s largest gated community, especially after 9/11.”
   Emily said she thinks The Point may be entering into a new phase, as it becomes more of a destination again.
   “It’s sleepy, but it’s waking up a bit,” she said.



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