Rural Post Offices on Shaky Ground

BY Tom Bearden  August 12, 2011 at 4:00 PM EDT


More than 3,500 post offices are being evaluated for potential closure. Photo by AFP/Getty.

If you blink, you might miss it.

That’s how the Postmaster in Parshall, Colo., Grant Burger, described his town recently. In fact, photographer Brian Gill and I drove right past it on our way to meet with him. It’s not that small, really, it’s just a little hard to see from the highway. The town is about midway between Kremmling and Granby, just southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The post office that Burger runs is one of 3,700 mostly rural facilities that the U.S. Postal Service is now studying for potential closure (along with proposing to eliminate as many as 120,000 workers). The Service is losing billions of dollars each year and is always looking for ways to save money. Al DeSarro, a USPS Communications Specialist, says overall mail volume has declined 20 per cent in the last five years.

Even worse, First Class mail, which is the most profitable, has declined 28 per cent. Most of that business has gone to email and online banking. Closing low-volume post offices and eliminating the salaries and overhead expenses is one way to reduce the profit gap.

But the people who patronize the Parshall post office aren’t very happy about possibly losing it. The nearby Bar Lazy J dude ranch is the post office’s biggest customer. Owner Cheri Amos-Helmicki says hers is the oldest continuously-operating guest ranch in Colorado, and that she has a 75 percent guest return rate because she markets here business through the mail. She sends out newsletters, calendars, Christmas cards, and personal follow-up letters to every guest. If the Parshall office closes, what is now a five-minute trip up the hill becomes up to an hour-long round trip to Kremmling.

The Postal Service is rolling out a new/old kind of post office that might replace some of those that are closed. It’s called the “Village Post Office.” The Service will contract with local merchants, like general stores, to sell stamps and flat-rate parcel boxes. Burger says that in many ways that’s “back to the future,” because that’s how many rural post offices operated decades ago.

But Village Post Offices won’t provide the same level of service. Amos-Helmicki sends out quite a bit of international mail, and Village Post Offices won’t be equipped to do that. And the general store, which might have hosted such a facility in Parshall, recently closed.

Other postal patrons we talked to said that the post office is where they often run into their far-flung neighbors and catch up. With the general store closed, the only other public venue is a restaurant, the Parshall Inn.

DeSarro says Parshall’s residents will have a chance to speak their piece about all this at a yet-to-be-scheduled public meeting, should their post office be selected for closure. He says that process usually takes six to nine months.

You can hear more from all of these people in our broadcast story. We also provide a historical perspective through an interview with Nancy Pope, the Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington.