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OMAR EL AKKAD

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In one of the rarest deals of its kind in Canadian history, a privately owned bridge linking the country to its southern neighbour is going up for sale.

The 300-metre toll bridge connecting Fort Frances, Ont., and International Falls, Minn., will soon go to the highest bidder as the two struggling paper mills that own it look to shed assets and raise some cash.

Just two years shy of its 100th birthday, the soon-to-be auctioned bridge has dominated local politics and gossip in Fort Frances and International Falls, populations 9,000 and 6,700, respectively.

Politicians in both towns see the sale as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to axe the toll they say is crippling tourist and business traffic.

"We see this as an opportunity to finally take it out of private hands," said Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk.

"It needs to get put into public hands."

Two paper mills on either side of the border co-own the bridge.

One company used to own both paper mills and the bridge, but after the Canadian mill was sold, Idaho-based Boise Cascade Corp. and Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. of Montreal arranged to own the bridge jointly. Both companies are suffering from a difficult paper market and are looking to get rid of non-essential assets.

Mr. Onichuk describes the bridge as one of the most expensive crossings in the country.

The toll, which applies to northbound traffic only and goes into the companies' coffers, runs about $8 a car, and at least $20 for trucks.

That, he said, "can end up being a lot of money when you're sending hundreds of trucks across the border every week."

Cutting the fees could be a huge incentive for companies looking to relocate to the area, Mr. Onichuk added.

If the two towns buy the bridge, they would cancel the toll.

For residents of both communities, the bridge is vital. The next crossing is about an hour's drive away.

Many people live on one side of the border and work on the other. There aren't enough people in either town alone to fill the community orchestra, so it's a hybrid.

"There's no movie theatre here," said Pam Hawley, curator of the Fort Frances museum. "So we have to go over there."

About 5,000 people -- half of its summer visitors -- use the bridge to get to the museum, she added.

"When tourists come in, they're usually quite surprised" at the toll, she said. "It becomes just another nuisance."

But finding out how much it will cost to put the bridge in public hands and end that nuisance is proving difficult.

Representatives of both towns have asked Abitibi and Boise Cascade for a price, but the companies won't say. The sale is expected to go through a broker to the highest bidder in the near future.

Reflecting the fervour with which both towns are pursuing the sale, big political guns from the United States and Canada are beginning to take an interest in the bridge's future.

U.S. congressmen from the area showed up at recent meetings discussing the sale, and Mr. Onichuk has met with several provincial ministers to present his case.

But there may be some private interest in the bridge as well.

Among the names touted as potential suitors are Manuel (Matty) Moroun, the trucking mogul who controls the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit.

But the historic selloff is made even more complicated by the bridge's age.

Originally built in 1908 to transport paper-mill products across the border by rail, the bridge has only 15 to 20 years left before it will need to be replaced at a cost of about $8-million (U.S.), according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"It seems every 20 years the bridge becomes an issue," Ms. Hawley said.

"Sometimes it's the location, or the customs, or the tolls. . . . This is how you know two decades have passed: the bridge comes up again."

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