Some small towns may be losing a community icon -- their post officesby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Kenneth, Minn. — The Internet and other technologies that have revolutionized communication are making life tough for the U.S. Postal Service.
That hurt is being passed down to small town post offices. The Postal Service, which could shut down as many as 2,000 in the next few years, already has announced it will close 10 post offices in Minnesota.
Most of the post offices on that list are in towns that even well-traveled Minnesotans may be unfamiliar with, communities like Flom, Taopi or Steen. But for residents, the small towns are the centers of their universe, and losing the post office is going to hurt.
"I really didn't think they would close it," said Dave Groen, who serves on the city council in Kenneth, population about 50. "We don't want to see it go; we use it a lot."
Groen, who runs a small engine repair shop, said the post office across the street is handy to send and receive business and personal mail. He said it also serves as a social center.
"On a cold winter days, what do you do in a small town?," asks Groen. "You meet at the post office, talk for a while, get your mail and go back home. It's a nice little meeting place."
The final decision on the post office in Kenneth, in far southwest Minnesota, is several months away. That's also the timetable at the other end of the state, some 400 miles north, where the Angle Inlet Post office is also on the close list.
Angle resident Karen Colson said she's in shock at the prospect of losing a post office that's just a short trip away.
The northwest Angle community is just a couple of miles from the Canadian border. ZIP code 56711 has the northernmost post office in the lower 48 states. It's in that chunk of Minnesota surrounded by Lake of the Woods, so visitors have to drive through Canada to get there.
Losing the post office means a long trip to the next closest one.
"There's two, about equal distance away," Colson said. "One is Warroad, Minnesota the other is Roseau, Minnesota. They're about 65 miles, one way, from here."
Postal officials admit there will be inconveniences, but say there's a good reason why lots of post offices must close: money.
The national service lost more than $8 billion last year and is on track to lose another $7 billion this year, said Pete Nowacki, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Minneapolis. He said postal officials plan to cut 7,500 employees.
"You reach a point where something just has to change," Nowacki said.
In recent days postal officials have even said they may have to default on a $5.5 billion pension payment due in September. The postal service has been clobbered by electronic competition like email and private shipping companies like UPS.
The amount of first-class mail has declined by half in the last decade. In the last five years the postal service has lost a fifth of its total business.
"We hit our peak on mail volume in 2006, with 213 billion pieces of mail," Nowacki said. "That was down to about 170 billion last year."
But not everyone believes closing small town post offices will do much to balance the postal budget. Retired St. Cloud postmaster Buzz Snyder said they make up only a small part of the expenses.
"You could close almost all the small post offices in the country and it would comprise less than one percent of the operating budget of the postal service," Snyder said. "So we believe that that's not the way to go to try to assure the Postal Service does what it needs to do to continue to financially thrive without taxpayers dollars."
At his small engine repair shop in Kenneth, Dave Groen said he's disappointed his local post office probably will close. But he understands the finances are unsustainable.
"I've seen the numbers and we're spending three times the money we're getting in," he said. "You can't really operate on that."
Like many other small rural towns, Kenneth has struggled in recent decades, losing population and business, Groen said. For him, losing the post office is just another jab, reminding residents that the town's best days are long gone.
- Morning Edition, 05/25/2011, 6:49 a.m.