Executive Assistant Commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations William Ferrara speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for Madawaska's new land port of entry on Thursday. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — The U.S. General Services Administration and J&J Contractors have officially broken ground on a $71.7 million land port of entry project for the border crossing between Madawaska and Edmundston, New Brunswick.

Groundwork has already begun at the site of the new building where people enter the United States through Customs, but an official ceremony in the Multi Purpose Center on Thursday brought together regional dignitaries from the GSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, surrogates from Maine’s congressional delegation and local officials to discuss the progress on the project thus far.

The port of entry, as well as a $97 million international bridge project across the St. John River, represent not only a massive infrastructure upgrade in town, but a renewed connection between Madawaska and Edmundston — divided for more than a year by pandemic restrictions on international travel. The groundbreaking ceremony began with a performance of both the U.S. and Canadian national anthems.

“Days like this, when we can bring everyone together again for that mutual benefit [are] really special,” Executive Assistant Commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations William Ferrara said.

The projects will be some of the largest construction undertakings in Madawaska in decades. The old international bridge, for example, was built exactly 100 years ago, and has been posted with a 5-ton weight limit since 2017.

The port of entry will be significantly expanded from Madawaska’s current facility, Ferrara said, and along with the new building will come technological updates and an expansion of CBP’s security abilities.

Not only will the larger facility potentially mean more CBP jobs, but Town Manager Gary Picard said that it will likely create more maintenance work too: “bigger buildings to heat, bigger driveways to plow.”

Already, the Madawaska port of entry processes 430,000 southbound privately owned vehicles a year — more than 115 times the total population of Madawaska. But municipal leaders in both Edmundston and Madawaska have advocated for additions to the project to promote even more international travel and flow of commerce between the U.S. and Canada.

One major victory was convincing the Maine Department of Transportation to widen the bridge to accommodate a pedestrian and recreational vehicle lane.

The port of entry, meanwhile, will include a large work of art, which will be visible from Main Street, and which Picard hopes could be an attraction in itself. While the GSA already requires a half a percentage of its project budgets to be spent on art, Picard worked directly with federal officials to be sure the port of entry fits within the vision laid out in Madawaska’s decade-long downtown revitalization plan.

“It’s hard to put into words the amount of work it’s taken to get to this point,” Picard said. “It’s taken an enormous amount of collaboration.”

The close bond between Madawaska and Edmundston was a highlight of speeches at the Thursday groundbreaking ceremony. Not only will thousands of tourists travel through the port of entry every year, but hundreds of families and friends visit the adjacent city to see loved ones.

“We are the same people and we’re just separated by a border,” Picard said. “Having gone through border closings because of COVID, it has made us realize that even more … We miss it.”

GSA spokesperson Paul Hugues was unsure as of Friday what the immediate next step in port of entry construction will be, and the GSA’s public timeline simply identifies summer 2021 as the beginning of construction.

Meanwhile, no further information has come to light about the fate of the Madawaska McDonald’s, which is still fully operational in the heart of the port of entry construction site. Negotiations for the acquisition of the McDonald’s property, which is owned by a local franchisee, have been ongoing for months.

Picard, who helped produce a seven-plus minute video asking McDonald’s to relocate in town, said he and his collaborators have not received any feedback from GSA or McDonald’s corporate office.

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.