To the Editor:
The letter from Mark Jamison of Webster that’s published in your most recent edition (“What does Webster hope to achieve with planning initiative,” Sept. 17) leaves readers with the impression that the town board refused to act to continue the lease of the post office, when that is clearly not the case.
Mr. Jamison’s letter is mostly about planning, but also discusses the post office situation. While he’s certainly entitled to his opinion about planning, he’s not entitled to his own set of facts regarding the town’s post office.
Some small post offices in Western North Carolina may have their hours cut or be shut down as the U.S. Postal Service continues to hunt for ways to solve its ongoing financial deficit.
Last year, a proposal to close hundreds of post offices across the country was met with a backlash, causing that plan to be largely abandoned.
The tiny town of Fontana Dam is getting to keep its post office, but what’s not clear yet is whether the post office will be manned or not.
Fontana Dam was included 10 months ago in a list of 3,700 money-losing post offices slated for closure. The U.S. Postal Service is headed for $14 billion in losses this year. The agency recently opted not to close the post offices amid public outcry. Instead, the postal service is cutting hours and some services.
The town of Fontana Dam can still send and receive mail via its own post office — at least for now.
The U.S. Postal Service decided to delay closing or merging scores of post offices nationwide following protests from lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. Legislators wanted the process slowed so that Congress can first debate possible methods of fixing the money-troubled U.S. Postal Service.
The shutdowns were slated to begin early this year.
This postponement comes as great news to residents of North Carolina's newest town, Fontana Dam — population 33 — a rural outpost in the wilds of Graham County near the Tennessee line.
"I think it is really important we have a post office," said Darlene Waycaster, who doesn't actually live within the town's limits but is an employee of the town's sole employer, Fontana Village Resort. "We do so much mail through here, and we have so many Appalachian Trail hikers coming through, too."
Fontana Village Resort boasts 140 employees during warmer times of the years, and more than 100,000 visitors annually make their way to this remote spot. The Village's seasonal workers rely on post office boxes as the only means to get their mail. The demand is so high that some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.
Equally reliant on the post office in Fontana Dam are the legions of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who stop to pickup supplies as they traverse the famous footpath, which spans from Georgia to Maine. Many AT hikers, before leaving on their treks, mail themselves food and camping items to various drop points along the trail. Fontana Dam is the last re-supply point before hikers hit a tough stretch of the Smokies.
That information seemed to make an impression on U.S. Postal workers, said Fontana Dam town board member Craig Litz. Driving the curvy road to this far-flung outpost, some 45 miles roundtrip from the next nearest post office, probably made some sort of an impression, too, he acknowledged. The Postal Service actually came to Fontana Dam to hear concerns.
Litz had praise for the postal workers and U.S. Rep. Shuler. He said both parties seemed genuinely interested in hearing and understanding the situation faced by Fontana Dam's residents, workers, visitors and hikers should the post office close.
"It was definitely not just for show," Litz said. "They definitely heard us."
That said, the U.S. Postal Service is teetering into bankruptcy and is forecasted to lose a record $14.1 billion this year alone.
The mail-carrier service has plans to cut $20 billion in costs by 2015. Doing so, however, is contingent on closing more than 3,700 post offices and about 250 mail-processing facilities, including one in Asheville that serves this region. Mail processing for Western North Carolina would be consolidated into a facility in Greenville, S.C.
The Postal Service also wants to end Saturday mail deliveries, slow the delivery of first-class mail and change labor union contracts to cut up to 120,000 jobs.
Nothing will happen now, at least regarding the post office and mail-processing facilities, until May 15 at the earliest. Since northbound Appalachian Trail hikers pass through Fontana in April and early May, they can continue to use the post office for their supply drops this year. Reviews of the situation and various postal offices will continue, though.
"Given the Postal Service's financial situation and the loss of mail volume, the Postal Service must continue to take all steps necessary to reduce costs and increase revenue," USPS said in a recent statement.
But even a reprieve is helpful, Fontana Dam's first-ever official mayor, Tim Gamble, said — and not just because everyone who is associated with the town would like to have a place to send and receive mail. But, also, because of the historic importance of the post office to the Fontana area: Fontana Village Resort is one pillar supporting this community, and the post office serves as the other one.
Both pillars, town leaders and community members said, are vital.
The U.S. Postal Service wants to close Fontana Dam’s tiny post office to save money, a downsizing move critics say would further isolate the small community.
This far-flung outpost in Graham County is frequented by tourists, and serves as a vital waypoint for thousands of hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Despite the region’s remote location, it turns into a bustling place in the summer with throngs of tourists coming to Fontana Village Resort — as well as an influx of seasonal workers topping more than 140. Those seasonal workers rely on post office boxes to get their mail, with so much demand some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.
Residents also rely on the post office boxes, according to Craig Litz, an employee at Fontana Village Resort.
“You have a significant number of people who live in the village,” Litz said. “Their round trip to the next closest post office is 45 miles.”
And it will hurt the resort as well, he said.
“From a business standpoint we have tons of guests at Fontana Village resort who forget stuff that we have to mail back to them,” Litz said. That would now require a trek to town every time grandma left or glass or junior left this favorite stuffed animal behind after their stay.
The next closest post office is in Robbinsville or the Nantahala Gorge, a 45-mile trip respectively. Factor in the slow speeds required on the curvy, twisty roads, and a trip to the post office would require a two-hour investment.
The community, just this year, become a bonafide town. The new town is home to only 33 fulltime residents, but that population number is deceptive: about 100,000 people a year visit the resort.
The Fontana post office is perhaps most critical, however, to hikers along the Appalachian Trail.
The long-distance hiker traversing the 2,200-mile trail from Georgia to Maine mail themselves care packages, as do friends and family, full of needed supplies.
“Everything from food to extra socks,” Litz said.
The Fontana post office is a key drop point for these care packages.
“In the spring time, we have a room dedicated just to stuff from the hikers,” Litz said. That’s when thru-hikers doing the entire trail are coming through in waves of 30 a day.
Hikers also use the post office to send unneeded equipment back home, such as winter jackets they started the trail with but no longer need. Fontana Dam is just 1.8 miles from the trail.
“It’s very important — Fontana is part of the long-distance hiking experience, and part of the logistics of resupply,” said Laurie Potteiger, an AT thru-hike veteran and information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conference, headquartered in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
Fontana Dam is the first post office hikers hit after starting the trail in Georgia, once any distance under way, that’s in such close proximity to the trail.
The proposed closure is part of a broader cost savings measures by the U.S. Post Office. Last week the postal service announced it would study whether to close nearly 3,700 local offices and branches because of falling revenues. Facing an $8.3 billion budget deficit this year, closing post offices is one of several proposals the Postal Service has recently considered to cut costs, and one of three that are drop points for Appalachian Trail hikers.
Fontana’s leaders are fighting the proposed closure. They have appealed to U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, for help.
Shuler hopes to stop the closure, spokesman Andrew Whalen said this week.
“We are doing our best to ensure it stays open,” Whalen said Tuesday. “We’re drafting a formal appeal to the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission.”
Hazelwood seems to be getting the short end of the stick these days. Once an independent blue-collar town boasting a half-dozen factories, it has seen them close one by one over the past two decades.
Now, the community is in danger of losing another vestige of its identity: the post office that stood on its former main street for nearly 50 years.
This time around, Hazelwood residents are taking firm action. More than a thousand Hazelwood residents have banded together to rescue their neighborhood post office from permanent closure, signing petitions and sending letters to elected officials.
The Postal Service has not made a final decision but continues to study consolidating the Waynesville and Hazelwood postal operations. The Waynesville post office is less than two miles away from the one in Hazelwood, which primarily serves Hazelwood and West Waynesville residents.
The Hazelwood branch is certainly not alone in facing closure, as the Postal Service is considering other consolidations across the country to improve efficiency and save some badly needed money.
Six of the 80 post offices in Mid-Carolinas district have already been shut down this past year.
The government agency cites changes in “consumer preference” and the recession-related declines in mail volume for a revenue shortfall of nearly $4.6 billion so far this year, with that figure projected to push $7 billion.
Bill Burkhalter of North Augusta, S.C., who owns the Hazelwood building that is leased to the Postal Service, said the possible closure is definitely not due to increased rents. According to Burkhalter, the Postal Service is actually getting the better deal.
“They have a very good lease rate, believe me,” said Burkhalter.
Despite plummeting revenues, the Postal Service says it will not lay off employees at closed branches but will transfer them to new jobs, according to spokeswoman Monica Robbs.
P.O. boxes at Hazelwood would be installed in an open section of the Waynesville facility with no change in address. Ironically, that would mean the Hazelwood address and zip code would apply only to P.O. boxes outside of Hazelwood itself. Those who get mail delivered to their doorsteps in Hazelwood switched to the Waynesville address long ago.
After receiving more than 1,400 signatures from constituents railing against the proposed Hazelwood post office shutdown, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) enlisted in the battle to save the Hazelwood post office. That fight has multiple front lines in Shuler’s district, with the Postal Service’s threatened closings of two post offices in the Asheville area.
“I have seen and heard tremendous local support for keeping these facilities open,” said Shuler in a press release. “I am relaying that information directly to Postal Service officials.”
His relaying has helped persuade the Postal Service to keep doors open at the Biltmore post office, which indicates that the movement to save the Hazelwood facility isn’t all that farfetched.
“It’s not locked in stone that they’ll close it,” said Doug Abrahms, spokesman for Shuler. “If we present enough evidence, we have a chance of getting it off [the list], but there’s no guarantee.”
Shuler said there’s even more hope for success since Congress passed a bill last week that cuts its retiree health benefits fund by $4 billion.
“That should give the Postal Service some breathing room to pursue long-term options other than drastically slashing the number of postal facilities throughout the United States,” Shuler said.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown is not so optimistic. Though he has also sent on a letter to the Postal Service, stating it would be a convenience to have both offices open, Brown said the post office would “likely” be closed.
“I’m just another citizen in the community,” Brown said “I don’t think my voice has much weight.”
Mary Ann Enloe, long-time mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville, said though the Biltmore facility was saved, Hazelwood has always been a middle-class community and residents there might not have the same clout as the customers in the upscale Biltmore area.
“My honest opinion is that we will probably lose this, not because of any ill will toward the community of Hazelwood but because the U.S. Postal Service sees it as a cost-saving measure,” Enloe said.
Whatever the outcome of the Postal Service’s review may be, no one can say Hazelwood residents didn’t put up a fight.
On the day Lynda Baltzell learned the Hazelwood post office might close, she became one of the leaders of a campaign to save it. She and others in the neighborhood took petitions to local businesses where they sat collecting signature after signature for three weeks.
“This is a small post office with a big heart,” said Baltzell.
Apparently, many Hazelwood residents feel the same way.
Those who walked into Within Reach Resale Shop were “very anxious” to sign, according to Linda Dirscherl, assistant manager at the store.
“They felt like it is needed in the neighborhood,” Dirscherl said.
The same went for customers at Smoky Mountain Roasters, where most who walked in also signed.
“All the people who come in and sign it say ‘Heck ya!’” said Lauren Lankford, an employee at the café.
Patty Atkinson, a sales clerk at Waynesville Pharmacy in the Hazelwood neighborhood, said so many people signed the petition there that she continually had to add additional pages.
Atkinson herself wrote to Shuler for the first time to try to save the post office. She sent a letter to the Postal Service’s district office in Charlotte as well. Atkinson stressed that many elderly residents use the Hazelwood post office, including veterans who should have the convenience of a nearby post office.
“I don’t think they realize just how much this post office is used,” said Atkinson.
Joe Moore of Hazelwood is one of the neighborhood veterans who will be saddened to see the post office go. Moore makes daily trips to check his post office box where he receives his prescription medicine. He’s worried about how he will get to his medicine if the post office closes.
“It’s a shame because I’m disabled,” said Moore. “I don’t go too much away.”
Moore said his primary concern is the prospect of waiting in long lines at the Waynesville post office.
“I’m worried about the time that it takes to get all this done, waiting in line if you’re not well,” said Moore. “I have to have my rest.”
But for others, the move would simply be a minor inconvenience.
Tammy Hutchison, who works at Hazelwood Family Medicine, runs to the post office three times a week and said she would miss getting her five minutes of fresh air walking there.
“Now I have to get in my car and go,” said Hutchison. “The parking at the new post office can be horrendous.”
Darlene Lowe, who regularly uses the main post office in Waynesville, said it is obviously busier than the one in Hazelwood.
“Parking can get a little crazy,” said Lowe. “I have been here when both parking lots are full. I must admit, I’ve gone to Hazelwood, and I’ve gotten right in.”
According to Moore, the Waynesville post office sees enough people as it is.
“There is no way that they can handle the traffic, they can’t now,” Moore said.
Kim Medford, manager of Carver’s Cloth Shop & Vertigo, deliberately avoids the Waynesville post office because going there is time-consuming, she said.
“This is a small town, but there are a lot of people here,” said Medford. “I think we need more than one post office.”
According to Enloe, the Postal Service had promised that the post office in Hazelwood would remain open when the towns of Hazelwood and Waynesville merged.
Enloe said she was told it would take an act of Congress to close it, since it was a stand-alone post office rather than a secondary branch.
Robbs with the Postal Service said the Hazelwood facility is now a branch of the Waynesville office, so the agency has full authority to close it.
While saving the Hazelwood post office is about convenience for some, other residents are also concerned about preserving a part of history. The post office was one obvious sign of Hazelwood’s former status as an independent town.
“The whole crux of it is we don’t want to give up that part of our identity,” said Enloe.
Atkinson wrote in her letters that that the post office has long been part of the Hazelwood community’s identity.
“I stressed that it was like losing our heritage because it has been here for so many years,” said Atkinson.
Even if the post office does close, thereby striking a blow to Hazelwood’s identity, few say the actual community will ever cease to be a community for its own residents.
“The people will still have the Hazelwood identity,” said Moore. “As for the rest of the world, they’re not going to know.”