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Washington — U.S. Customs and Border Protection ) is not replacing a recently retired customs agent in the Alpena area, prompting concern from businesses and tourism officials that the region will take an economic hit.

Closing the post would result in Rogers City losing its status as a port of entry, as well as international travelers and air traffic bypassing the Alpena airport, business leaders say.

Ports of entry are designated sites where authorities screen foreign visitors, imported cargo may enter the states, and U.S. citizens may return from outside the country. For years, the Alpena area had been served by a part-time customs agent.

A spokeswoman for the CBP agency said it determined there was insufficient work to justify a full-time officer in Rogers City, and that small boats and private aircraft flights could be redirected to nearby ports of entry.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been aggressively engaged in closing the gap in staffing by focusing hiring efforts at many of our busiest ports,” the spokeswoman said. “CBP understands how important travel is to the United States and border security is our No. 1 priority.”

The Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce predicts the decision could have a “tremendously negative economic impact” on the region, saying Canadian boats are less likely to travel to affected Michigan harbors and that Alpena County Regional Airport would suffer from the loss of international flights, an average of 100 a year.

In a letter to lawmakers, the chamber said private boat traffic entering U.S. waters would need to contact the customs office in Sault Ste. Marie prior to making landfall. Commercial vessels will be served but are expected to face delays as they coordinate schedules with the Sault Ste. Marie office.

The decision also leaves a considerable geographic area unstaffed by the Customs agency — roughly 250 nautical miles between the Sault Ste. Marie and Port Huron marinas, and 250 air miles between the CBP-staffed airports in Sault Ste. Marie and Pontiac.

“The loss of an agent serving our area, and the entirety of the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is of great concern to us,” the chamber wrote.

The group said an agent stationed in Alpena could also report to the Sault office, allowing them to better handle “what would otherwise be an enormously underserved shoreline.”

Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters recently sent a letter to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, urging him to assign a full-time agent to Alpena.

“Commercial and recreational vessels will face new burdensome delays. As home to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and destination for the growing Great Lakes cruise market, a lack of customs agent serving this region will also hurt local tourism,” wrote Stabenow of Lansing and Peters of Bloomfield Township.

Alpena County is willing to donate office space at the Alpena County Regional Airport for the agent, the senators noted.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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