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Fontana Dam gets a temporary reprieve from post office closure

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.

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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.

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