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Don’t Give Up That Sense Of Community

Rural communities are facing plenty of threats these days: depopulation, decreasing employment in traditional sectors such as agriculture and logging, downtown businesses that can’t compete with the prices of a distant discount mart, and new regulations (some good, some bad) governing the ways rural people interact with the environment. Over the last few months, however, it’s become apparent that a huge threat comes from a surprising source: the U.S. Postal Service.

This past winter, the town of Livingston, Mont., fought a high-profile battle to keep its post office in a downtown building that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Postal Service had wanted to build a new post office in a suburban location, out by the Interstate exit, abandoning the cramped downtown structure. And the Postal Service tried to make that decision without input from local residents.

In a town of 7,500 people, the post office is a public space that embodies the slow-paced neighborly tone so valued by small-town residents. In a place like Livingston, which has an unusually vibrant downtown, the post office is also a linchpin of downtown commerce. Said City Councilwoman Sheryl Dahl, “In so many places the downtown is a ghost town and it’s very difficult to revitalize it. We didn’t want to get in that position. But I was afraid once we lost the post office, other businesses would follow.”

“The Postal Service in Montana does have legitimate concerns about old buildings,” said U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. “Although I also believe that they have been arrogant.” The publicity surrounding Baucus’ 40-minute wait in the lobby while officials debated whether to let him tour the historic facility precipitated a turning point in the Livingston battle.

The involved parties found a solution in Livingston: keeping retail operations in the historic building and constructing a new annex away from downtown for back-office functions. And Baucus, among others, is optimistic that in Montana at least, the Postal Service is changing its ways. “I think they are becoming more sensitive to local views,” he said. “In the last few months, my staff has received several phone calls from the Postal Service saying they want to work with us.”

But while Livingston residents at first thought they were the only town in the country to face this problem, the furor has shown that they are far from alone. Indeed, Rep. Earl Blumenauer D-Ore., has introduced legislation to make sure postal authorities consider community impacts in post office sitting decisions. He said, “I asked one of my staffers to find some examples, and he found so many that he eventually had to cut off the research because it was taking up so much of his time.”

Blumenauer’s bill was prompted by an experience in Portland where the Postal Service refused to abide by city zoning ordinances. According to a fact sheet on the bill (the Post Office Community Partnership Act, which is still acquiring co-sponsors and does not yet have a timetable for action), the Postal Service has flouted local zoning in places such as Hanover, Mass., and Murrysville, Pa., and has tried to move post offices from downtown locations in McCall, Idaho, Castine, Maine, and Abbeville, La.

It would be easy to place blame for these controversies solely on the Postal Service, whose actions have at times seemed to support the idea of a self-important bureaucracy ignoring the public will. But in truth, these experiences merely represent another trend threatening the traditional way of life in small, rural communities.

It’s not just post offices that are abandoning downtowns. Suburban sprawl is also luring grocery stores, banks, hardware stores and other places that residents regularly frequent. When this happens, the downtown either wilts or fills with tourist-oriented boutiques, and the sense of community is diminished as neighbors now pass each other in cars rather than on foot.

Businesses typically build on the outskirts of a town because of perceived parking problems downtown and/or because local zoning ordinances make it cheaper to build an ugly box in Sprawlville than to build or renovate downtown. Sadly, many rural residents either don’t appreciate the consequences of this trend or don’t know how to reverse it.

The exciting lesson of the Livingston post office is that with a motivated community and politically powerful allies, small towns can assert their desire to keep institutions downtown. However, communities around the country must make such assertions continually in order to preserve what makes them special.

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