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After lawmakers object, feds to restore Customs staffing in Duluth

Duluth's dock owners and airport operators received welcome news Monday.

By the end of the month, the number of officers assigned to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Duluth will return to five -- the original complement. After recent retirements, the Duluth office had been reduced to three officers and briefly faced the threat of dropping to two.

The staff cuts had alarmed Adolph Ojard and Brian Ryks, executive directors of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the Duluth Airport Authority, respectively. A Customs spokesman in Chicago said Monday, however, that the cuts would be restored.

"This alleviates a potentially real serious problem," said Ojard, who had warned that inadequate staffing could have caused costly vessel delays, discouraging international ships, or "salties," from calling on the Twin Ports. Last season, the Twin Ports received 1,237 vessels, including 450 salties, that had to clear Customs.

Ryks noted that Customs officers in Duluth are pulled in many directions, providing coverage not only for Duluth International Airport and maritime operations but also for Sky Harbor Airport as well as shipping operations in Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

"I don't think that some of the folks in Washington understand how busy these officers are," Ryks said.

He praised Minnesota Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman for helping restore the Duluth office's staff.

Mike Magni, president of Monaco Air Duluth, the fixed-base operator at Duluth International Airport, also had voiced concern that a shortage of Customs agents could hurt his business. Monaco has marketed itself as a convenient service stop for private international flights, and the business is on track to attract nearly 300 corporate jets to Duluth this year.

One of Monaco's key selling points to corporate travelers is its quick turnaround times.

Ryks said that if local Customs officers couldn't maintain service levels, Monaco's growth could have been imperiled.

"If we had to turn even one aircraft back, it could do tremendous damage to their business," he said. "When you're working with corporate flying departments, they will use you again and again if they have a good experience. But if they are turned away, they will not consider Duluth in the future."