News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

January 30, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Future of small post offices remains uncertain

TERRE HAUTE — Prairieton has never had a stoplight.

The highway, Indiana 63, curves uninterrupted through the little, unincorporated town of 250 residents a few miles south of “the city,” Terre Haute. Even without a stoplight, though, Prairieton probably looked busy to some motorists who didn’t blink while passing through back in the 1960s. The place had an elementary school, a church, a barber shop, general store, hardware store, gas and service station, volunteer fire department, a ballpark with Little League and Babe Ruth League teams, a fairgrounds and summertime town fair, and, of course, a post office.

As time marched, the list dwindled. Consolidation closed Prairieton School in 1971, slowing the town’s pace considerably, forever. Eventually, the barber shop, general store, hardware store, gas station, ballpark and fair faded, too. Today, along with a couple small businesses, only the most vital organs of a small town’s anatomy remain — the church, fire department and post office.

Growing up in Prairieton, I drank lime Kool-Aid at Vacation Bible School in the church, learned Boy Scout knots in the old firehouse, and rode my bike to the post office to buy stamps. The post office, back then, shared the same small white building with the barber shop. It was a summer hangout for us — a motley crew of 9-year-old boys in sweaty T-shirts and jeans. The post office/barber shop was a kid’s oasis, with air-conditioning, a pop machine, a restroom, and FBI Most Wanted posters on the bulletin board.

In 2011, many of America’s small, no-stoplight towns maintain a steady pulse through their post office branch. It’s one lingering source of daily activity — a sign that a sense of community survives.

“It’s a piece of memory that the neighborhood, and everybody, wants to keep,” said Denise Edwards, officer in charge at the Prairieton Post Office branch. Edwards’ family moved to Prairieton when she was 7 years old. Now 56, she’s worked at the post office since 1975.

The future of rural and suburban branches of the U.S. Postal Service is in question now. This month, the USPS — which lost $8.5 billion last year — announced it will close as many as 2,000 post offices around the country. The Postal Service hasn’t yet decided which locations will be shut down and won’t rush that decision, but the review process has begun, Kim Yates, spokeswoman for the USPS in Indianapolis, said Thursday by phone.

At Prairieton, “we’ve not heard anything,” Edwards said.

So, each of the nation’s 32,000 post offices will be studied. Where two branches are located close together, one may be closed. The availability of postal services through other outlets will be considered. And, most notably, post offices operating at a deficit could be targeted. By federal law, the USPS can’t close a post office solely because it isn’t turning a profit. But the Postal Service is “asking Congress for flexibility in this area,” Yates said.

The need for cost-cutting is dire, she added. That $8.5-billion loss in 2010 translates to $23 million a day in red ink. Also, as many as 7,500 USPS employees — local postmasters, supervisors and administrators — may be laid off, U.S. Postmaster Patrick Donahoe said last month.

“Serious, hard steps have to be taken,” Yates said.

More than half of the country’s post offices lose money, Donahoe told the Senate in December. Many of those branches “are located in areas where people no longer live, work or shop,” Donahoe testified, according to the Washington Post.

In terms of profitability, the Prairieton Post Office is “getting along well with revenue,” Edwards said. “It’s not near what it used to be, but neither is the rest of society.” In terms of use, all but 17 of the branch’s 102 lockable post office boxes are currently being rented, which is “about the norm,” she said.

The recession and changing technology cut into the USPS’ business base. “That’s what’s hitting us hard — the Internet, people doing their banking online, and sending eCards” instead of hard-copy greeting cards, Edwards said.

The Postal Service hit an all-time high in 2006, delivering 213 billion pieces of first-class mail. As the recession set in, that total gradually fell, sinking to 171 billion pieces last year, Yates said. The delivery count could fall to 150 billion pieces in the next decade, according to a federal study quoted in the Washington Post.

Two segments of the Postal Service’s business have increased, though. The volume deliveries of Priority Mail packages and advertising mail (known by most Americans as “junk mail”) is up, Yates said. Still, the heavy decrease in first-class mail is forcing the USPS to consider branch closures, layoffs and cuts in services, such as Saturday delivery.

Changes have already begun in Indiana. Bloomington’s postal distribution operations are now conducted at the center in Indianapolis. The Postal Service has proposed to also move distribution operations at Lafayette and Muncie to the center in Kokomo, Yates said. (Terre Haute has one of the state’s nine distribution centers, and no plans are currently in place to change that location, she added.)

The Postal Service’s situation is unlike any Yates can recall. “I’ve been here 32 years, and I never remember this happening,” she said.

In the meantime, small-town post offices, such as the one in Prairieton, keep greeting patrons who still put stamps on the light bills, check their post office boxes, or slide a grandson’s birthday card across the counter to Edwards. When she started her job 36 years ago, Paul’s Barber Shop (operated by the world’s friendliest barber) occupied the other half of the small business. Paul passed away and the barber shop closed years ago, and a small commercial bakery moved in and remains. A few blocks west is the Prairieton Volunteer Fire Department, active as ever. One block south is Prairieton United Methodist Church. There’s also a hair salon, and a couple of car repair shops.

Prairieton’s first post office was established in 1818 by a settler named Moses Hoggatt, according to the historical book, “Greater Terre Haute and Vigo County,” by Charles Oakley. Edwards and her regular patrons would like to see that tradition continue; Yates understands that sentiment.

“No town wants to lose its post office,” Yates said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com

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