NAFTA to blame for Canadians canceling Maine cycling tour, officials say

Posted March 07, 2013, at 7:08 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Local and state officials who had been mystified by a Canadian cycling group’s sudden decision to cancel a major summer tour in Maine learned Thursday afternoon that the group is pulling out because of provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

During an hourlong conference call, representatives of Maine’s congressional delegation, state government, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and Velo Quebec discussed the problems the Canadian group is having and tried to iron out a solution, according to Willy Ritch of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office.

“Everybody on the call was impressed by how well thought out and organized Velo Quebec is. They would bring in a lot of visitors and a lot of money to the state of Maine,” Ritch said. “I believe that everybody wants this tour to happen — but it’s a matter of figuring out a way to do this under the confines of the law.”

He said that Velo Quebec representatives explained during the conference call that NAFTA would require a tour such as the one proposed for this summer to start in one country and have participants cross the border together. Because of the size of the 2,000-person bike tour, it is not possible for the nonprofit cycling group to take all participants across the border to Waterville, where the 600-mile loop tour of Maine was to have started, Ritch said. If the company does not bring all the people over together, its 100 or so employees working with the group would have to get work permits for the week in the United States.

“What they indicated on the call was that it was prohibitively expensive and logistically too complicated to bring all the people across the border to Waterville to start the trip,” he said.

The BDN’s efforts to speak with a U.S. Customs official about the issue this week have been unsuccessful.

Velo Quebec officials two weeks ago had to make the decision to cancel the group’s planned 2013 Grand Tour Desjardins in Maine and move it to Ontario, Alain Gascon, event coordinator with the group, told the BDN on Wednesday in a telephone call from Montreal.

If the tour had taken place as planned, the cyclists would have started their ride in Waterville and traveled to Bangor, Bar Harbor, Belfast and Damariscotta before returning to Waterville. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, there has never been a seven-day ride in Maine this large and it would have been the first time Velo Quebec has done a Maine ride.

“The situation is very complicated,” Gascon said, adding that Velo Quebec is still interested in finding a way to bring a grand tour to Maine in 2015.

The organization began working with the American Consulate in Montreal last September, searching for a solution to the problem, but without success, Gascon said. After the BDN reported Wednesday that the group was canceling the summer tour in Maine, Gascon began to receive calls from politicians and others who were eager to try to make it work. That’s when the conference call was scheduled.

Mark Ishkanian of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, who also participated in the conference call, said that when Velo Quebec successfully staged the annual Grand Tour Desjardins in the U.S. before, the cyclists started together in Quebec and then crossed the border into Vermont or New York on their bicycles. The tour also ended in Canada.

“Because of NAFTA, you can’t have a foreign company cross the border and stage an event without getting the proper licenses and getting work permits,” he said. “It just becomes very complicated, very quickly.”

Maine’s isolated, wild border with Quebec, with no major cities located close to either side, means that it would be hard to stage a loop ride in Maine that begins in Canada, Ishkanian said. The same rules would apply to an American organization that wanted to hold a tour in Canada, he said.

“Everybody wanted to make this happen, but it’s clear the law won’t allow it,” he said. “I think that people are determined to make this happen, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Ritch said that officials will keep on brainstorming.

“None of the ideas on the call met the requirements under the law according to Customs and Border Protection, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to keep trying to come up with a solution,” he said.

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