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Published August 07, 2011, 12:06 AM

Post Office Closures Could Hit Small ND Towns Hard

Hundreds of college students "zipped to Zap" in 1969, creating a population boom not seen since. With those numbers largely on the decline for decades, Zap now risks losing a status symbol tied to a different type of zip — its ZIP code.

By: Rebecca Beitsch, The Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Hundreds of college students "zipped to Zap" in 1969, creating a population boom not seen since. With those numbers largely on the decline for decades, Zap now risks losing a status symbol tied to a different type of zip — its ZIP code.

While the 58580 ZIP code itself would remain, Zap's Main Street post office may not.

Zap is one of 76 towns in North Dakota the U.S. Postal Service is including in a study that will evaluate whether those locations are needed. They are part of more than 3,500 offices being studied nationally, most in rural areas with low volumes of business. Residents will still get their mail — just, perhaps, in a different way.

Zap, with a population of 237, has post office boxes for about 270. The interior still has many of the old-fashioned original boxes and mail slots, and the lobby is about the size of a walk-in closet.

Next door at the T&G Grocery and Grill, Zap residents were disheartened at the news.

The Brecht family was eating lunch there right after a trip to the post office. Their plates were in front of them, and stacks of mail were sitting next to their silverware.

"It sucks," said Sherry Brecht, 60, matter-of-factly, when she heard of the study.

Son Patrick Brecht summarized it this way: "There won't be a single person in town happy about the post office closing. It's us losing another thing."

"I've always been under the impression that to be a town, you have to have a post office," Patrick Brecht continued. "A post office and a store are so important to a small community. It's important to keep what we have."

Zap has had its share of loss. Some of the buildings, including an old church, are boarded up. The school, closed so students could be bused to nearby Beulah, has now been purchased and will be turned into apartments for oil workers. With the oil boom bringing fresh faces into town, some residents wonder if even studying the Zap post office for closure is premature.

There are potential logistical problems as well. Would they have to go to Beulah for their mail, they wonder. How would elderly residents, who may get medication in the mail or may not drive, get to the post office? How difficult would the 6-or-so-mile trip be in the winter?

Carol Hartman, an employee of the Hazen-based Union State Bank, works in the branch housed in the grocery store in Zap. While she normally mails deposit slips, checks and other documents daily, a lack of a post office could mean a 20-mile drive one way to get to the main branch.

"They keep chipping away. It's hard to turn around and not have it," Hartman said. "They're herding us to the big city. It starts with closing the school and making us go to a bigger town."

The Postal Service doesn't have any firm plans for how it would serve an affected community, but it does have several options.

Spokesman Pete Nowacki said the agency may have a carrier deliver to cluster boxes placed by the old post office, or it may put cluster boxes in neighborhoods. Some residents could be put on a delivery route. There just may not be anyone in town at the post office selling stamps and taking packages.

Even those services won't be lost entirely, though; people can do much of the same business with a rural carrier. Nowacki said the Postal Service is also considering opening what it calls "village post offices," essentially affiliated branches that would lease space in existing businesses and offer most post office services.

"The automatic assumption is that it's not for the better," Nowacki said, stressing that efforts would be made to maintain a high level of service. "It's the natural reaction of anyone. None of us like to change our routine or change how we're doing things."

That is a major aspect for Larry Hartman, Carol's husband.

"It's nice to come up, get the mail, get a cup for coffee. You know how a small town is," he said.

The reaction was similar just a few miles down the road in Dodge, population 87.

A group of women sitting at City Hall, used as a senior center three days a week, said getting the mail is a big part of their routine and their social lives. The post office is a great spot for picking up gossip, but they also stop in a lot just to see how Wanda is doing, a postmaster beloved for both her ever-filled candy dish and the special care she takes with packages.

"One time, I was mailing a package to my sister in Texas, and she put snowflake stamps all over it because she said they needed snowflakes in Texas," Carolyn Rodney said with a smile.

"Wanda always tries to match the occasion with the theme," said Deanna Senger, who said the postmaster always makes a point to ask if she's mailing a birthday card.

They also like the way the post office is on the corner, "so she can keep an eye on things," Senger said.

The town has already lost its school, and its bar shut down recently.

"We'd lose a big part of Dodge again," Darline Streifel said of the potential closure.

The sentiment is the same in Golden Valley, where despite a population of 182, the town has lost its grocery store and gas station. The post office, bar and fabrication company are the only three businesses left.

"I don't like the idea, but who would, I guess?" said Roland Backfish. A former mail carrier himself, he said rumors about the post office closing have been percolating for 15 years. He's not sure if this time will be different, but he has seen the changes here that lead to a closing.

"I'm 85 years old, and I've lived in this town since 1947. So I've seen it go from a flourishing community to a bedroom town for the oil industry," Backfish said.

The post office is visible from his yard, as is the FedEx truck pulling up to it. The Postal Service and FedEx have an agreement, Nowacki said. The Postal Service uses FedEx planes, but in rural areas, it often brings parcels to the post office for final delivery.

"It makes more sense for them to drop it off and for us to take it the next couple miles," he said.

And perhaps that's just another reason residents want their post office to stick around — to be the familiar face in town that goes the extra mile, literally or figuratively, when many other private enterprises either won't bother or can't last in a small town.

For many, that's something worth keeping.

"It'd be nice to see things grow here in town," Patrick Brecht said, "but it'd be nice to see things stay the same."