'Tell them no': Possible post office closing seen as threat to Cliff Island life

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CLIFF ISLAND — Shortly before noon last Thursday, the town center of Cliff Island was bustling with activity.

Year-round residents mingled with summer folks at the crossroad, where an American flag is flanked by the ferry landing, Peale’s Seaside Market, a tennis court and post office.

There are only dirt roads and about 50 year-round residents on this Casco Bay island that is part of the city of Portland. During the summer, the population swells to about 200, golf carts outnumber other vehicles and bicycles outnumber golf carts.

And heading down to the post office to pick up the mail is not only a necessity for island residents, it’s a highlight of the day, a chance to talk about the weather and catch up with each other.

But now the post office, which residents call a pillar of year-round island living, is threatened with closure.

Last week, the U.S. Postal Service released a list of 3,700 post offices nationwide that may be closed in an effort to saving $200 million. Thirty-four Maine offices are may be shuttered, including two in Portland.

The U.S. post office at 622 Congress St. is threatened with closure for the second time in two years. And Cliff Island is a target, too.

Postal point of view

Last year, the USPS lost $8 billion. The agency receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.

Tom Rizzo, a USPS spokesman in Maine, said the deficit is largely blamed on changes in the way people access postal services.

Rizzo said people can order stamps and boxes online. They can even have a postal carrier come to their home to pick up priority packages. Stamps can also be purchased at ATMs and supermarkets, and retail stores offer some of the most-used postal services.

Rizzo said that while there may be nearly 32,000 post offices in the U.S., there are more about 100,000 locations where customers can access postal services.

“You can do almost anything from your house,” Rizzo said. “It’s a different world today. The brick-and-mortar post office is not necessary and it’s far more expensive to keep them in place.”

When the USPS closes a post office, it creates a “village post office” nearby.

According to the USPS website, a village post office is operated by a community business to provide selected postal products and services, including Forever stamps, Priority Mail flat-rate packages and envelopes.

Retailers may also provide post office boxes either inside or outside the business.

Rizzo said he believes the village post office model will improve mail access in areas where traditional post offices are closed.

“It’s offering advantages to customers, retailers and the post office,” Rizzo said. “So we think this is a great idea and we intend to go full speed ahead,” pending approval from the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Islanders react

Cliff Island, one of only 15 year-round island communities, is more than an hour away from downtown Portland. There is no home mail delivery, so residents rely on post office boxes to get their mail.

Cheryl Crowley, 49, has raised two children on Cliff Island. She said she fears that closing the post office will be a death-knell for year-round island life, changing Cliff Island to a summer community.

“I’m afraid people might leave,” she said. “It would make living here much more difficult.”

On Cliff Island, there is only one business that could be a village post office: Pearls Seaside Market & Cafe, a small store and sandwich shop open from May to October.

Owner Steve Corman, 54, rents the first floor of the building for his store. He thinks the property owner would allow him to build an addition for a village post office, but he doesn’t think it will give residents the level of services they need, since the business is only open one day a week during the winter.

“I guess I could give an islander a key,” said Corman, who lives in Portland and rents a seasonal home on Cliff.

Like other residents, Corman said the post office is as important as the one-room schoolhouse and the store.

“Once an island loses one, that’s the beginning of changing an island from a full-time living space to a summer island,” Corman said.

Breya Lite, a 21-year-old college student who is home for the summer, was shocked to hear the post office might close. Lite said she always looks forward to seeing Anna Dyer, who has been the island postmaster for the last 13 years.

“That’s awful,” said Lite, who was mailing birthday presents to friends in Washington, D.C., and Ohio. “Tell them no.”

Congressional opposition

Maine’s Congressional delegation quickly sent out press releases when the USPS released its proposes shutdown list on July 20.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, sent a letter to the USPS Northern New England district manager opposing closing Station A on Congress Street in Portland.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she is skeptical that closing post offices would help USPS with its financial difficulties. She said she is also concerned about the effect on rural communities, like Cliff Island.

“While there are some areas where postal services could be consolidated or moved into a nearby retail store to ensure continued access, this simply is not an option in many rural and remote areas,” Collins said.

Rizzo said USPS filed its request July 21 with the Postal Regulatory Commission, which will issue recommendations for closures. The commission will maintain a 60-day comment period for customers before issuing a recommendation.

Once a recommendation is reached, postal customers will receive 60 days’ notice prior to any closure, which could happen as soon as December.

Customers will have 30 days from the notice of closure to file a formal appeal, Rizzo said.

Not without a fight

Islanders said they are are not going to take the proposed closing of their post office lying down.

“We’re used to advocating for ourselves because we’re so small,” Crowley said.

Although USPS says the Internet is changing the way people use postal service – sending emails rather than letters, and buying stamps and priority mail boxes online – Corman said that is not an alternative on the island, where about half of the residents are 50 or older.

“There are places on this island where you can’t get cell phone service, let alone the Internet,” he said.

Roger Berle, 68, whose is the island’s notary, also predicted that islanders would come out in full force to oppose the closure. He said closing the post office will end year-round island living.

“This island has had major threats to it’s existence,” Berle said. “We’re pretty good at defending ourselves.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

Sidebar Elements

Breya Lite looks for her debit card so she can ship two birthday presents to friends in Washington, D.C. and Ohio, while Postmaster Anna Dyer takes care of the paperwork at the Cliff Island post office.

Greg Jukins unloads mail from a Casco Bay Lines ferry on Cliff Island last week.

Steve Corman, who owns Pearls Seaside Market & Cafe, and resident Cheryle Crowley stand in front of the Cliff Island post office, which is one 34 in Maine being considered for closure.

Postal union to do ‘whatever is neccessary’ to keep Congress Street station open

PORTLAND — For the second time in as many years, the post office at 622 Congress St. is on the chopping block.

And a union official this week said employees will do what it takes to keep it open.

Last week, the U.S. Postal Service released a list of 3,700 post offices nationwide that may be closed in an effort to saving $200 million. Thirty-four Maine post offices may be shuttered, including two in Portland.

Last year, the USPS lost $8 billion. USPS spokesman Tom Rizzo said the closures largely affect rural post offices that employ only one or two people.

“The only exception was Station A in Portland,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said the future of Station A has been “questionable.” In 2009, the USPS considered shutting the facility to save money, but public outcry kept it open.

But the situation is different this time. Rizzo said the 2009 scenario was a local initiative; the new list is being handed down from Washington, D.C.

When a post office is closed, the USPS tries create a Village Post Office in a nearby business that will offer the most popular mailing services. The change is expected to reduce overhead costs.

“We think this is a great idea and we intend to go full speed ahead,” pending Postal Regulatory Commission approval, Rizzo said.

But not everyone shares his enthusiasm.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the post office plays a “vital role” in the community, which has a poverty rate 65 percent greater than any other Portland community and where 31 percent of residents walk to work and nearly 75 percent are 85 and older.

“Station A is located within one of the most vulnerable communities in Maine’s largest city,” Pingree told the USPS in a letter. “I urge you to consider the community and economic impacts of while coming to a final decision on Station A.”

Kathleen Condon, vice president of the Portland postal union, said the group will be meeting next week to plan a course of action.

Condon said Station A should remain open, even if it is losing money.

“It’s not about revenue,” she said. “It’s about the necessity for the people.”

Resident Karen O’Shei, who lives near the post office, said she is disappointed Station A is under fire again. O’Shei doesn’t own a vehicle and said she walks to get her mail.

“(Losing Station A) would be a big inconvenience,” she said.

O’Shei said she didn’t participate in demonstrations the last time closure was considered. “I’ll probably participate this time,” she said.

But resident Jim Jensen, 50, said he doesn’t think the public will be able to save Station A.

“I don’t think they’re going to make it this time,” Jensen said. “I think they’re going to close.”

— Randy Billings