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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Walking to the Post Office

Air Date: Week of

Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston visits Groton, Massachusetts where the local post office is moving from the center of Main Street, and some say from the heart of the community, to the outskirts of town. Cox talks with local residents, town planners and federal post office representatives about how such decisions get made. Factors to weigh and consider include convenience, transportation and the arguments for and against town expansion.


CURWOOD: As malls and mega marts have opened around America, many downtown areas have declined, especially in smaller cities and towns. Once in a while, municipalities block the giant retailers from setting up away from town, and sometimes the big stores do open up in the central business district to help bring shoppers back downtown. But what happens when the threat to main street comes not from the mega marketers but from a Federal agency? Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the fight in one Massachusetts town over plans to move the Post Office.

(Traffic sounds)

COX: Every day except Sunday, 81-year-old Harrison Ripley walks from his home in downtown Groton, Massachusetts, to the post office a few blocks away.

RIPLEY: I pick up my mail and I pick up mail for the First Parish Church, which is up above. And then I come home, and I figure I've got in about a mile.

COX: Ripley could just as easily set up a mailbox outside his house, but that would deprive him of his daily routine, which is the social highlight of his life.

RIPLEY: You meet a lot of people around the post office. Every day. It means keeping in touch with the world. (Laughs.)

(Man: "Hello there, yes. Any postage for these guys?" Woman: "First class." Man: "Yeah." Children yell.)

COX: In Groton, like other small towns, the post office is an anchor of social life.

(Woman: "Hello." Man: "Hey, how are you?" Woman: "Good." Man: "Good.")

COX: It's more than just a place to run into people. Located on Groton's main street, the post office also meets a civic need. Children sell raffle tickets and Girl Scout cookies here. School bands and choirs perform outside, and during election seasons, townspeople come to meet the candidates. But Groton's post office needs more space to keep up with a local population that has swelled by 30% in the last 10 years. Town officials had hoped the post office would move to a site next door, but after a long battle the postal service has decided to relocate a mile and a half away. Groton Postmaster Ruth Tague says the move is long overdue.

TAGUE: Our employees and the town of Groton's townspeople and our customers deserve a nice place to go to, to be able to conduct their business.

COX: What's wrong with next door?

TAGUE: We have to go with what we have available.

COX: What's available is a marshy lot on the edge of town. The postal service bought the land in the late 80s for more money than it's worth today.

(Crickets at night)

COX: Groton Selectman Evan Katz says building here doesn't make sense.

KATZ: I can't imagine where to build on a site where development costs are higher, it's less accessible to customers, is going to be superior to a site which is well-situated and responds to the needs of the customers.

(Traffic sounds)

COX: Those customers, says Katz, are in Groton's thriving downtown, which dates back to the 17th century. There's an inn established in 1678 and a prep school founded in 1793. There's also a hardware store, a couple of coffee shops, a grocery store, a drug store.

(Drilling sounds)

COX: Businesses are sprouting up, like this new insurance agency which Selectman Katz says came downtown because of all the foot traffic. Peppered around these businesses are lots of homes, including subsidized housing for the elderly. Katz says Groton's town plan attempts to check suburban sprawl.

KATZ: The town has made a conscious decision to reject the strip mall mentality and the suburban sprawl mentality. We want the town center to be the core, so we're trying to keep the activities concentrated right here.

COX: And that's why Groton fought to keep the post office on Main Street. The town's preferred site is large enough to accommodate the postal service's needs, and its owner offered to sell his land to the post offices and buy their out-of-town parcel. But, like many national chain stores, the postal service opted to move out. That's left Selectman Katz frustrated.

KATZ: You could understand that you'd be in a battle for Walmart. They have stockholders, they have a bottom line. I recognize that the postal service does. But you'd think that the government would be on your side to a certain extent.

COX: Groton is by no means alone. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, at least 10,000 post offices have moved from town centers in the past 20 years. But when the post office quits downtown, spokesman Mark Corbly says it's always for a good reason.

CORBLY: The postal service is unique in that it provides a government function and yet is also mandated to operate as a business. The result of that is, we have to balance the economics with the local governmental desires of situations where they would like to have it sited.

COX: But the economics often work better for the postal service than for local taxpayers. Federal law requires local authorities to make the post office accessible. In Groton's case that means extending a sidewalk by nearly a mile, and widening the road at the new site. In addition to the cost, officials fear the move will spur development on the edge of town. They admit that downtown is congested, that they have tried hard not to let that congestion spread to the edge of town.

DELEO: This is a town. I suppose it has its own convictions and conclusions and decided to pick up its heels.

COX: Ray Deleo is a developer who has built more than a dozen post offices, and who wanted to build a new one in downtown Groton. Deleo accuses the postal service of often ignoring laws requiring it to consult with local officials before it buys or leases property. And he says local officials seldom put up a fight.

DELEO: Nine times out of ten local government is ill-informed or ill-advised, and they just quietly go along with whatever's been done, feeling that Uncle Sam knows best and that's where they want to be, and forever hold our peace.

COX: The postal service admits it failed to consult with Groton officials before it bought land on the edge of town. But it says since then, town authorities have played the role of obstructer. Postal service spokesman Corbly says customers want a post office they can drive to. He points to a recent survey conducted by the town, showing that 92% of post office customers arrive by car.

CORBLY: Perhaps the town of Groton is changing. Given that there's such a great reliance on the automobile, customers it would seem to us would more greatly appreciate having adequate parking and safe access and exit space, as opposed to have any presence in the center of a downtown that's already congested.

COX: Some of Groton's residents agree.

(Traffic sounds)

COX: Long-time resident Mitzi Bilitski says she's changed her mind about building on the edge of town.

M. BILITSKI: I wasn't in the beginning in favor of that place. But it has to be because it's just no place to go and have a post office here.

COX: Bilitski's husband Frank says town officials are clinging to the past when they declare that people should be able to walk to the post office. He says in Groton, just like in the rest of the country, this is the age of the car.

F. BILITSKI: A lot of people living in the town of Groton have to have 2 automobiles, not one. See, the husband goes to work and the wife has to do shopping. There's no public transportation. So therefore there's 2 cars.

COX: And with 2 cars, any family can get to a suburban post office. That is, unless like Harrison Ripley, you don't like to drive.

RIPLEY: It's absolutely out of the question. I don't feel safe doing it.

COX: So Ripley is hoping the postal service will at least allow a downtown store to set up a contract post office to receive mail and sell stamps. That way, he and some of the town's other elderly citizens can maintain the links to the community built around their daily trips to the post office.

(A door slams. A child coos. Woman: "That's going to be a dollar thirty six; do you need a receipt?" Man: "Please.")

COX: For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox.



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