The United States Postal Service is preparing to close seven post offices across Minnesota in the first wave of what may be historic change for the mail service.
Storefront post offices are slated to close in Duluth, International Falls, North Mankato, Minneapolis and St. Paul (map). As many as 17 others could also close.
To most people, the storefront at Fourth Ave. and Third St. in downtown Minneapolis is just a post office.
But to Inger Millard, it's her post office. When she dropped by to pick up a package recently, the clerk already knew she was going on vacation soon.
"I do know them by name, and they know me by name, also," Millard said. "So that's pretty nice. When I go there and I don't even know that I have mail in, and they do, and they say, 'Hey, I got something for you.'"
But that soon may change. Millard's post office, the Commerce Station, is one of seven on a list of likely closures in Minnesota, and a list sent to postal employees includes 17 others. Postal officials say dozens more are under review. Nationwide, another 3,100 could close or be consolidated.
That's a problem for Millard, who said she can't get mail at her home in North Minneapolis.
"I set up a P.O. box a few years ago," she said. "I had some mail stolen from my home, and I decided that would be a more secure place."
The Commerce Station and others, like those in West Duluth and the East Side in St. Paul, may be just the start of a historic retrenchment for the U.S. Postal Service.
The mail itself is already changing. After historic highs just a few years ago, mail volume has been plummeting, from 212 billion pieces in 2007 to an expected 180 billion this year. That's a 15 percent decline.
"The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away," said Pete Nowacki, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Minneapolis.
Online commerce has been a boon for goods sold over the Internet and shipped from seller to buyer, but the check is no longer in the mail.
“The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away.”Pete Nowacki, Postal Service spokesman
"How many things do you do electronically? How many bills do you pay electronically? Do you file your taxes electronically? Each one of those is a stamp that we used to sell to you, and those are going away," Nowacki said. "And we're seeing a generational disconnect or something."
That's a big problem for the Postal Service; as much as a $6.5 billion problem this year.
Recently, postal authorities reorganized delivery routes to save money. You may have already noticed that your carrier has changed, or is coming later in the day.
The U.S. Postal Service has trimmed its workforce by 25,000 this year alone. They're also phasing out stamp vending machines, and removing thousands of blue post boxes to trim collection routes. Six weeks ago, postal officials renewed a formal request to cut back to five-day delivery.
Now, the Postal Service is turning the budget knife to its retail outlets.
The seven slated for closure in Minnesota are all what are known as "finance stations," because they're a budget-line for a larger post office nearby. They typically have a counter and P.O. boxes, but no carriers.
Supporters say neighborhood stations like the Seeger Square storefront on Arcade St. provide irreplaceable service to neighborhoods like St. Paul's East Side, where many people speak limited English or don't have easy access to a computer.
Lyle Puppe is a former postmaster in Cottage Grove, and he lives near the Seeger Square post office.
"Folks that live in this particular area come from the poorest part of St. Paul. Some of them don't have transportation," Puppe said. "If they did, in fact, close Seeger Square, we've got people that would have to take buses, and do transfers of buses, to get packages mailed."
Postal workers say such closings will only make matters worse.
Tom Edwards is president of the American Postal Workers Union in St. Paul, which represents post office clerks. His members' jobs are guaranteed through November 2010, but he's worried that the closures will drive more customers away.
"Maybe they'll go to buy stamps online, they'll go to UPS, maybe they'll go to FedEx," Edwards said. "So it is a case of -- the cure is worse than the disease."
But spokesman Pete Nowacki said the Postal Service needs radical change.
"As far as it being unprecedented, absolutely," Nowacki said. "But then, we've been used to a situation, where, as the population grows, as our delivery network grows, so has our revenue.
"There's a new house that's being built, another family is in there. That's another 15, 20, 30 whatever letters that [are] being mailed each month. That's kind of changed."
Postal officials haven't set a date for the handful of closures they're now planning in Minnesota, but they could close as early as this fall.