Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman!
Beulah businesses, residents think the post office should stay downtown
December 6, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
The post office anchors Beulah’s downtown shopping district, attracting hundreds of potential customers each day.
BEULAH — With a bright red bow in her long silver hair, a twinkle in her eye, and gift ideas for everyone, Sally Berlin, the proprietor of Crystal Crate and Cargo, is a dead-ringer for Mrs. Claus.
But Ms. Berlin is also a savvy businesswoman who knows the value of a good location. The post office, just two doors down the street, brings hundreds of people to this village on northern Michigan’s Crystal Lake every day. And when they’re picking up their mail or buying stamps, they often peek in her store’s window to see what’s new. Ms. Berlin says that she knows the post office brings in business because customers frequently leave their mail at her cash register.
Those days may be numbered, however. Ms. Berlin and a half-dozen other business owners with shops on Benzie Boulevard interviewed by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service say they are very concerned about tentative plans to move the post office from downtown Beulah to US-31, a site that is technically within the village boundaries but far removed from the heart of town.
“I think every business in downtown will suffer,” she predicted. “And moving the post office will be one more thing that will decentralize the village.”
Though the Postal Service's plans here are temporarily on hold, providing residents an opportunity to work with the agency to find a downtown option, Beulah’s situation is not unique. Many small towns are fighting to make sure that their post offices remain downtown to help central business districts prosper, that picking up the mail remains easy for village residents, particularly elderly ones who don’t drive; and that neighbors can still run into each other while checking post office boxes or buying stamps. But, despite attempts to stop many of the relocations, 1,257 U.S. post offices were closed from 1990 until 1998, when the United States Postal Service temporarily stopped the practice. Since the USPS resumed it in 2002, it has closed 220 more.
Downtown post offices are critical enough to the well-being of small towns that several federal lawmakers have repeatedly proposed legislation that would require the USPS to formally consider the effect of moving a post office away from a downtown businesses area. But with that bill languishing in Congress, residents who want the service to remain downtown must find other ways to change the huge institution’s mind. They can take some encouragement from the fact that places like Westminster, Vt., Ozark, Ark., and North Platte, Neb., have actually succeeded.
It’s All About Parking
The Beulah post office outgrew its space a while ago, according to its postmaster, Dotty Blank. Renters of the station’s 550 boxes are always stopping by to check their mail, Ms. Blank said, and there’s not enough room to sort through letters and packages. That’s why the post office started looking for a 4,000 sq. ft. facility, nearly double the current station’s size, last spring.
The biggest headache has been meeting federal parking standards. According to Jeff Stozek, a USPS real estate specialist, the post office is looking for about 35 parking spaces in Beulah — 17 for employees and mail trucks and 18 for customers. The employee parking requirements are strict, while the customer requirements are more flexible, Mr. Stozek said.
Jim Baltazar, Beulah’s village president, was surprised to hear that USPS was looking for so much parking.
“That doesn’t make much sense,” Mr. Baltazar said. “My gosh, people are in and out of there in two minutes. And 17 spaces for employees—I didn’t think they had that many people working there!”
In fact, they do not. The Beulah post office only has, at most, five employees working at any one time, and the mail carriers drive their own vehicles rather than mail trucks.
Such apparently inflated parking mandates are common. In Westminster, for example, the postal service initially claimed that it needed 12 parking spaces for a staff of one fulltime postmistress, one part-time counterperson, and one part-time delivery person. Realistic or not, such requirements are usually what finally push downtown postal stations to new sites where building big parking lots is easy.
Mr. Baltazar said that when the USPS approached the village about expanding and relocating the post office the village council suggested Kenny’s Service Garage, a large, long-vacant, high-ceilinged service garage just a block from the current post office. The postal service, however, claimed it needed more parking and would only consider that site if the current owners first renovated the building.
USPS was far more interested in erecting a brand-new building on any of three properties at the north end of town. The sites are about three-quarters of a mile from the downtown, on US-31, which runs along the city’s municipal border. One site has a drive-through ice cream stand, a second is a mini-golf course, and the third is a vacant lot. All would provide plenty of parking but, because there are no sidewalks and the highway is busy and fast, walking to any of them would be difficult and dangerous.
A Timely Time-Out
Fortunately for critics of the Postal Service's plan, Beulah has been granted an administrative reprieve and enough time, perhaps, to convince the agency's leaders to reconsider. In the wake of high gas prices and post office reconstruction efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, the USPS declared a freeze on building new post offices. How long the moratorium lasts is not known. But according to Postmistress Blank, if the post office fails to purchase an available property by the time the offers expire this winter, the search process may have to be repeated.
Proponents of a downtown post office see the delay as an opportunity to ascertain what Beulah residents really want and need. Some suggest that the post office expand into the empty space next door to its current site, a building now vacant after an antique store closed. Mr. Baltazar and others are also amenable to building a brand new structure near the village office, a half-block from the current station and right next to the town’s biggest parking lot. That lot is also across the street from the garage that the village originally proposed and the USPS rejected.
Business owners, residents, and local officials interviewed for this article said that, since a small-town post office is a crucial anchor for businesses and an informal gathering place for residents, they are interested in working to keep the post office downtown. Jonathan Clark, the proprietor of L’Chayim, the county’s only delicatessen, thinks that a solution is possible.
“They could triple their space by expanding into the antiques store,” Mr. Clark pointed out. “It’s a win-win situation: We keep our post office downtown, they get the space they need.” He also suggested that the village could dedicate street parking for the post office during certain times of the day in order to meet USPS requirements.
Some success stories offer lessons in how best to change the post office’s mind. For example, Main Street Ozark, affiliated with the national Main Street movement, worked with residents to keep their post office downtown. Citizens collected thousands of signatures, hosted community meetings, located suitable downtown properties, negotiated through the bureaucracy and red tape, and netted a downtown post office with adequate parking. In Nebraska last year, citizens used a more direct approach: They persuaded U. S. Senator Ben Nelson to intervene; his influence, along with expressions of concern by many local officials, kept North Platte’s post office downtown.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont offers a detailed guide to keeping post offices downtown. It says local officials and concerned citizens should find out exactly how much space, parking, and maneuvering room the post office actually needs. If the postal service cites demographic information, it should be closely checked. It is crucial, the guide says, to involve elected officials of all sorts, federal and local. And it strongly recommends researching alternative downtown locations that meet the post office’s needs.
Ann Cousins of the Preservation Trust of Vermont says that support from governors and elected federal officials has helped many small Vermont towns keep their post offices and quality of life.
“Our congressional delegation is very interested in issues that would in any way degrade the Vermont landscape, including our small village centers,” she said. “As a result we had great cooperation from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Jim Jeffords, Representative Bernie Sanders, and Governor Howard Dean. Their help and their involvement were really critical in getting the attention of the postal service.”
Senator Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont, and Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, have repeatedly tried to pass the Post Office Community Partners Act—which requires the postal service to consider the effect on downtown businesses before closing, consolidating, or relocating a post office. According to Tim Daly, who works for Representative Blumenauer, USPS officially opposes the bill. Introduced in 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2005, the bill passed the House and Senate with strong bi-partisan support once, in 1999, but then died in committee.
Without such legal backing, efforts by citizens to keep post offices in downtown buildings will remain fraught with the difficulty of matching bureaucratic wits with a large, entrenched institution. But, in Beulah, most business owners, residents, and city officials seem to agree that the effort may be well worth it to help sustain the village's businesses.
“It’s hard enough to get people off the highway and into downtown Beulah,” Mr. Clark said. “People have been driving past Beulah for decades, and moving the post office would just make it worse.”
Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.