Closing post offices latest hardship for Minn. small towns

Steen Post office
The city of Steen, Minn. plans to demolish the post office building once it closes. Vacant lots border the post office building on the town's mainstreet.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Seven small town Minnesota post offices are scheduled to close for good Friday and Saturday, the latest setback for towns which have seen a steady exit of community institutions and businesses over the years.

Among those to close is the post office in Steen, a southwest Minnesota town that in recent decades has seen churches, an elementary school, a grocery store and bank disappear.

Already, the post office building appears ready for the end. It needs a good paint job and some windows are boarded up. There's a sign pasted in a remaining window announcing the shutdown.

As he stood in front of the structure, Mayor Mel Van Batavia said the post office's final day of business will be a sad one.

Although the direct economic toll of losing the post office will be small in the town of about 180 people, the psychological toll will be high, the mayor said.

"It's just knowing that there's one more thing less on Main Street," he said.

Steen Post office
The Steen, Minn. post office is 123 years old and is slated to close. The post office has been in this building for roughly 50 years.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Residents of the other towns where post offices are closing — including Silver Creek, Taopi, Kenneth, Clements, Trail and Holland — are likely experiencing similar feelings.

In Steen, the loss reminds Van Batavia of a major turning point.

"When the elevator left and the lumber yard closed, I think that was the biggest change," he said. "The traffic in town went from 20-30 cars a day down to nothing."

The mayor's auto repair shop is one of the few businesses left. He said the town is now basically a bedroom community. Residents drive to jobs in nearby towns. A booming Sioux Falls, S.D, is a big draw, only 25 miles away.

Van Batavia said having a large neighbor has helped keep Steen's population fairly stable. He said city government basically keeps the streets repaired and the grass trimmed on its property — the bare essentials as he puts it.

But there aren't really enough resources to pursue economic development, the mayor said.

"We would sure like to," Van Batavia said. "But we're just too small."

Kenneth post office
The post office in Kenneth, Minn. will close soon along with six others in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Others, however, say it's possible to pump new energy into Minnesota's small towns.

"Oh, I don't think you're ever too small," said Muriel Krusemark, a leader in small town economic development in Minnesota.

Krusemark is in demand to explain strategies that have worked, including obtaining assistance from foundations and motivating residents to support improvements. In her day job she heads development efforts in the small west central Minnesota town of Hoffman. In five years, seven new businesses have started up in the community, including a hardware store and a part-time appliance store.

"He is open one day a week, Fridays," Krusemark said.

She said the store sells on average six appliances a week, far more than the owner expected. Some of the other new businesses in Hoffman are also open part time.

That sort of strategy of trying non-traditional arrangements has helped revitalize other small towns across the nation according to Will Lambe, an expert with The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lambe tracks economic development efforts in nearly 50 U.S. small towns, including three in Minnesota.

"I'm not suggesting that it's easy," Lambe said. "But I do think that positive change is possible in almost any community. It's just a matter of making sure that you've got a broad coalition that's committed to the same goals."

Although Steen doesn't do economic development, even the basics can be effective. About 20 years ago the community put in sewer and water lines, and got rid of individual septic tanks and wells.

Mayor Batavia said the improved infrastructure helped convince retiring farmers and others to move to town.

As for the post office, a town resident wants to buy the lot once the building is demolished. She plans to start an antique furniture restoration business on the site.

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