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A Bad Move, Barely Deferred

Lessons from impeding a postal relocation

May 12, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


One alternative to moving Beulah’s post office to a distant, busy highway would be expanding it into the vacant half of the building it now occupies.

BEULAH — A few weeks ago, a half-dozen local entrepreneurs and community leaders holding a meeting around the Michigan Land Use Institute’s conference table heaved a big sigh of relief.

The reason? They just learned that the U.S. Postal Service had frozen its plan to move the village post office from a cubbyhole of a facility just down the street to vacant land along the village border, on the other side of busy US 31.

Everyone at the table — business owners and a Benzie County commissioner — knew what the decision meant: Several hundred people will continue to come downtown every day or two to pick up their mail and, along the way say hello to some neighbors. They might also window shop, pick up a quart of milk, buy a sandwich, browse the bookstore, gaze at Crystal Lake, or run a downtown errand — all while strolling along Benzie Boulevard, our main street.

It means that kids, retirees, and neighbors with disabilities in this tiny village along Crystal Lake’s eastern shoreline will still be able to pick up mail on foot, rather than risk crossing US 31 to reach a location that has little to offer except a fine view of speeding traffic. And, given the number of “for sale” signs that showed up in the business district this winter, it means that Beulah’s downtown still has a fighting chance to stage a much needed comeback.

I wish those were the reasons that the postal service decided to stay put. But the folks in Washington based their decision to punt on something that has nothing to do with us — the urgent need to rebuild many Gulf Coast postal facilities flattened by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Their unfortunate plan for Beulah must wait.

“Through no fault of our own, we just dodged a bullet,” said one of the people at the table. “We need to be ready if this comes up again.”

More correctly, when it comes up again. Everyone at the meeting strongly agreed: Complacency is not an option. The group resolved that, when the postal service revives its proposal to move the Beulah post office, we and our 394 village neighbors must be ready.

If you live in a small town somewhere, you need to be ready, too. Our investigation of the post office’s decision-making, and what it takes to change it, reveals the dangers of distant, highly bureaucratized thinking. It also indicates what might work in trying to overcome it.   

Lost in Cyberspace?
When the postal service announced it intended to move its Beulah facility, it gave the standard reasons: The current facility is too small and lacks adequate parking. The agency calculates its needs for space and parking with the aid of a computer program known as the 919 Facility Planning Concept: Plug in the number of counters and post office boxes, local population figures, anticipated growth (based on a data base called “Kaci”), and a few other factors, and it spits out specifications for a new facility.

Jay Pack, a facilities program manager, says that the postal service uses the program in order to ensure that every community receives the same treatment.

“We have a computer program based on national standards,” Mr. Pack said, “so that whether it’s a post office in Beulah or Billings, as far as the number of boxes, customers, carrier routes, and population goes, we can go ahead and come up with the same size post office throughout the country. It provides a uniformity and consistency.”

But two communities that look the same on paper may in fact have very different needs — based on the communities’ design, character, seasonality and character of its businesses, and the desires of its citizens. A community might so value a downtown business district that it might be willing, for example, to trade in convenient patron parking for a post office that stays put.

So it is essential for a community to be aggressively proactive when the postal service announces that it is considering moving. If a town doesn’t want a cookie-cutter building plunked down wherever land is cheap and parking is abundant, residents had better say so—promptly and boldly.

Our own experience demonstrated that, when they move, those postal people move quickly, and sometimes come up with some pretty off-the-beam decisions. In our case, for example, the post office somehow concluded that it needed parking for 17 employees, even though none of us at the meeting could ever recall seeing more than four or five people working at our post office at any one time —counting the people who drive the rural delivery routes. That parking spaces requirement even had one postal operations analyst that I interviewed scratching his head and insisting that someone must have made a mistake.

Mistake or manipulation, it is plain that the 919 Facility Planning Concept is programmed to make sure mail is sorted and delivered efficiently, and decisions about how to do that made swiftly and cleanly, all the while ensuring that the postal service remains financially solvent. What 919 is surely not designed to do is help other downtown businesses, encourage walking, discourage sprawl, or enhance a community’s character.

Cadillac’s Great Adventure
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the postal authorities are forbidden to use design and location to help downtowns or curb sprawl. Citizens and city officials across the country have, when they are well-organized, convinced the postal service to keep post offices downtown while still meeting that agency’s local needs.

A successful example is about 60 miles down M-115 from here, in Cadillac, where citizens and officials persuaded the agency to expand its existing downtown post office instead of moving it to the edge of town. Folks did that by independently figuring out how to meet the postal service’s needs at the existing location. City Manager Peter Stalker and other officials repeatedly told the postal service that Cadillac would close streets, buy adjacent buildings, or whatever else was necessary.

“We just took each piece of that puzzle and, one by one, worked through it with them,” said Mr. Stalker. “In our case, we found there was a major concern because expanding the post office would mean cutting beautiful old oak trees. We talked to downtown people and decided that it was important enough to justify cutting the trees. We assured the postal service that we wouldn’t make them the bad guys for cutting trees down.”

Another major factor behind Cadillac’s success, Mr. Stalker said, was that the entire community — businesspeople, civic leaders, city officials, the local postmaster, and at least one U.S. senator, in this case Democrat Carl Levin — were united in their determination to keep the post office downtown.

“We were unanimous in our local support,” Mr. Stalker said. “I heard this one time from the Michigan Department of Transportation, when an official there said, ‘When you develop consensus and then come after a state agency, that’s tough to deal with because we can’t hide behind other groups.’”

In the end, a moratorium on post office construction put that expansion on hold, too. But Cadillac has now made it crystal clear that its officials, civic leaders, businesspeople, and residents want their post office downtown; that they have done their homework; and that there’s a workable solution that follows the rules. When the building freeze thaws and the postal service upgrades the Cadillac building, Mr. Stalker has every right to insist that negotiations will start with the assumption that the post office will stay downtown.

Time to Follow the Rules
One final caveat: Communities can draw on the postal service’s own written policies in figuring out how to change the agency’s mind, but they need to be very careful to make sure those policies are followed. And, most importantly, they need to offer real downtown choices for the post office.

Postal regulations clearly state that moving a facility to the edge of town should be a last resort, not a default option.

“In meeting a need for increased space,” according to USPS Facility Relocation Regulations, “the first priority is to expand the existing facility; the second priority is to find an existing building in the same area as the current facility; and the third option is to build on a new site; all within the downtown area, if possible.”

Village officials claim that they suggested several downtown locations, but officials at the postal service say that the only official offers they received were for three adjacent properties on the far side of US-31, at the very edge of the village. It’s essential, say veteran negotiators from Burlington, Vt. to Cadillac, Mich. to offer the post office real options downtown and to persistently advocate for those locations.

That may mean calculating the cost of renovating an existing building, offering village-owned land, or negotiating a parking solution. Basically, when a community makes it easier for the post office to find a suitable downtown location, the postal service is much more likely to cooperate.

Postal regulations also suggest that the agency should respect local master plans whenever possible. Beulah’s master plan says its “preferred future” should curtail commercial development along US 31 and add new businesses, especially year-round businesses, to the downtown business district. But guidelines and master plans carry little weight if a clear and concrete solution is not offered and defended.

We remain determined to prevent our downtown from losing its post office, a major business anchor, so we are leaving nothing to chance: Now that the Beulah village council has passed a resolution stating its support for keeping the post office downtown, we will ask the Benzie County Commissioners to do likewise. We are requesting letters of support from U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin. We’re passing around both a business and a citizen petition. We’re coaxing the village council spell out, in writing, how it will assemble an offer that the USPS cannot refuse.

And we’re telling those who care about their own downtown that they ought to be good scouts. As the ancient saying goes, Be Prepared.

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor, based in our Beulah office. Reach her at Carolyn@mlui.org.

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