Cross-border tug-of-war may balloon

Duane Hicks

The idea of amping up the annual cross-border tug-of-war between Fort Frances and International Falls into possibly becoming a multi-day event, complete with celebrities and major media coverage, has been referred to the town’s Economic Development Advisory Committee for further discussion.
The notion was championed by Falls city administrator Rod Otterness at a meeting July 27, which Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft also attended as the Fort Frances representative.
In an interview yesterday afternoon, Otterness said Fort Frances and International Falls have a special relationship in that they share the Rainy River as a source of pride and recreation, as well as a source of industrial power that is the reason both communities exist.
The river also served as a historical “highway” at a time before sovereign boundaries were drawn and people were ever concerned about which side they camped on.
“In some respects, this is an event that can help us highlight that very, very unique relationship that we have,” Otterness noted.
“In addition to that, and I am glad council in their wisdom sent it to the Economic Development Advisory Committee, I believe this is the kind of event that not only can highlight our communities and get us some attention, but actually, if we spend a little bit of energy on this project, bring people to Fort Frances and International Falls to defend their respective countries,” he reasoned.
Next year’s tug-of-war has been scheduled for Saturday, July 2.
Otterness said he’s hopeful the two communities can work together to raise the profile of the tug-of-war, as well as bolster the July 1 and July 4 celebrations that would take place around it—ideally creating a fun event for both local residents and tourists.
The event would be marketed as a Canada vs. the U.S. tug-of-war over an international boundary, not just a Fort Frances vs. International Falls showdown, Otterness said, adding he felt the patriotic angle is what would draw tourists/participants from all over either country and major media attention.
“I may be a little more excited about this event than is realistic, but I really think there is no other set of communities that are in a position, through this kind of event, to highlight what is, I would argue, one of the most notable, historical relationships the world has ever known—that is, of course, the longest undefended sovereign border in the world,” Otterness remarked.
“I think we have an opportunity to do something serious even as we’re having fun, which talks about just what a great relationship the two countries have and how that relationship plays out in small communities that are just a 200-yard marine yellow rope apart,” he enthused.
“We’re going to be playing with some of the ways of publicizing this. I particularly like the idea of pulling two great countries even closer together, and playing off the idea that as we dig our heels in and tug from one side or the other, we’re actually . . . a couple millimetres closer than we were before the event occurred,” he chuckled.
“We’ll actually close up that boundary a little bit as we dig in and pull.”
The event also could possibly involve celebrities and athletes. For example, the City of International Falls formally has sent an ambassador to the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp with a missive from Mayor Shawn Mason suggesting that the tug-of-war could be an event the NFL squad includes in its community service work.
“Rick [Wiedenhoeft] mentioned the Winnipeg Blue Bombers,” Otterness noted.
“I don’t think it’s exclusive to a particular sport,” he stressed. “Certainly, we both love hockey on both sides of the border and I think once you get your skates off, you’re probably a pretty decent tug-of-war champion if you’ve participated in the NHL.
“I think the real idea is to keep it fun,” Otterness said. “If we can find a partner that, because of their own sporting prowess or career can lend a little bit of panache and publicity to it, I think we’d be well-advised to take advantage of it.”
The event also will have to have more structure than it currently does, conceded Otterness, pointing out that there will have to be rules, such as enforcing a set number of tuggers per side “so that there’s a sense there is a sporting event and that it does mean something to capture the title.”
Otterness acknowledged both communities certainly have roads to fix and other municipal business to take care of, and he’d like to discuss with the EDAC bringing a private partner into the mix as a way to publicize the event and help foot the bill, adding a sponsor which sells its product on both sides of the border—and is associated with fun and sports and recreation—would be ideal.
“The Masters [golf] tournament wasn’t the Masters tournament we see right now the first time they had it,” Otterness argued. “If you associate yourself with a corporate sponsor that sees this as a good event, it becomes the ‘XYZ Corporation International Tug of War.’
“But those kinds of questions require vetting,” he remarked, adding there also could be room to have a charitable side to the event.
At the same time, Otterness recalled that at the July 27 meeting, Coun. Wiedenhoeft said he didn’t want to lose the “local flavour” of the event—Fort Frances vs. the Falls—and the tug-of-war task force endorsed this.
“We talked about, is it just about trying to use this as an economic development tool or do we want to make sure that there does get to be a continuation of the fun rivalry we’ve had with the event so far?” Otterness noted.
“And I think both can be accommodated,” he stressed, adding there could be more than one tug-of-war, with different classes for adults, for children, for celebrities, etc.
“We do want to make sure that this continues to be a fun event for residents of the two communities and that they can participate,” he reiterated.
Raising the scope and profile of the event will take time, with Otterness saying it’s all about “measured steps.”
“I think the goal should be to look at this as an annual event and position ourselves so that we think about where we want to be with it five years from now, or 10 years from now, rather than just focus on what we’re going to do next year,” he explained.
“That’s where I think it’s worth drawing a little bit bigger picture, without necessarily saying, ‘Next year we’re going to have a major corporate sponsor, next year the Vikings are going to be here, next year we’re going to have 200 people in town to try to compete,’” Otterness remarked.
“I think the goal is to dream big, but also to be realistic about just how much we want to bite off for next year.
“But obviously if you’re starting now, I think you can do a little bit more [next year].”
Otterness said one of the reasons he wanted to start discussions about the tug-of-war right now was to let the two communities know about it well in advance and work with organizers of the July 1 and July 4 celebrations to integrate the event into their plans.
Coun. Wiedenhoeft, who briefed council on the July 27 meeting at Monday night’s regular meeting, said he felt the idea was worth bringing to the EDAC for review.
“Don’t forget, this is a vision for five years down the road . . . if we want to participate and go down this route, we’ve got time to develop all of this,” he told council.
Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig said two communities in two different countries having a tug-of-war across a river is “a pretty unique event” that’s never been marketed to its full potential.
“You look at some of the things you see year by year—Kobayashi eating a bunch of hotdogs on Coney Island on July 4, or you see shin kicking in England, the running of the bulls [in Spain], stuff like that,” he remarked.
“This is pretty interesting stuff. We’re having a tug-of-war across a river.
“I do agree that there’s probably a lot of potential to draw attention to the event,” McCaig added.
“At a time when we find things are slipping, like fireworks on the First of July and ‘Fun in the Sun’ and those kind of events that are really waning in our community, a three-day event is like the resurrection of ‘Fun in the Sun,’” said Coun. Ken Perry.
“It would be great, I think. I think we should really pursue it, look into it,” he stressed.
“We’ve got five years to bring it to fruition. Next year could be a good start,” Coun. Perry added.
Council agreed to refer the tug-of-war event to the EDAC for its input.
Otterness and Coun. Wiedenhoeft will be invited to sit down with that committee when it discusses the matter.
Coun. Wiedenhoeft also told council the date for next year’s tug-of-war should allow many more people to attend since it doesn’t fall on a weekday like in the past.