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Wednesday, 07 October 2009 15:36

Hazelwood clings to its post office under threat of closure

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Hazelwood seems to be getting the short end of the stick these days. Once an independent blue-collar town boasting a half-dozen factories, it has seen them close one by one over the past two decades.

Now, the community is in danger of losing another vestige of its identity: the post office that stood on its former main street for nearly 50 years.

This time around, Hazelwood residents are taking firm action. More than a thousand Hazelwood residents have banded together to rescue their neighborhood post office from permanent closure, signing petitions and sending letters to elected officials.

The Postal Service has not made a final decision but continues to study consolidating the Waynesville and Hazelwood postal operations. The Waynesville post office is less than two miles away from the one in Hazelwood, which primarily serves Hazelwood and West Waynesville residents.

The Hazelwood branch is certainly not alone in facing closure, as the Postal Service is considering other consolidations across the country to improve efficiency and save some badly needed money.

Six of the 80 post offices in Mid-Carolinas district have already been shut down this past year.

The government agency cites changes in “consumer preference” and the recession-related declines in mail volume for a revenue shortfall of nearly $4.6 billion so far this year, with that figure projected to push $7 billion.

Bill Burkhalter of North Augusta, S.C., who owns the Hazelwood building that is leased to the Postal Service, said the possible closure is definitely not due to increased rents. According to Burkhalter, the Postal Service is actually getting the better deal.

“They have a very good lease rate, believe me,” said Burkhalter.

Despite plummeting revenues, the Postal Service says it will not lay off employees at closed branches but will transfer them to new jobs, according to spokeswoman Monica Robbs.

P.O. boxes at Hazelwood would be installed in an open section of the Waynesville facility with no change in address. Ironically, that would mean the Hazelwood address and zip code would apply only to P.O. boxes outside of Hazelwood itself. Those who get mail delivered to their doorsteps in Hazelwood switched to the Waynesville address long ago.

 

Signing for support

After receiving more than 1,400 signatures from constituents railing against the proposed Hazelwood post office shutdown, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) enlisted in the battle to save the Hazelwood post office. That fight has multiple front lines in Shuler’s district, with the Postal Service’s threatened closings of two post offices in the Asheville area.

“I have seen and heard tremendous local support for keeping these facilities open,” said Shuler in a press release. “I am relaying that information directly to Postal Service officials.”

His relaying has helped persuade the Postal Service to keep doors open at the Biltmore post office, which indicates that the movement to save the Hazelwood facility isn’t all that farfetched.

“It’s not locked in stone that they’ll close it,” said Doug Abrahms, spokesman for Shuler. “If we present enough evidence, we have a chance of getting it off [the list], but there’s no guarantee.”

Shuler said there’s even more hope for success since Congress passed a bill last week that cuts its retiree health benefits fund by $4 billion.

“That should give the Postal Service some breathing room to pursue long-term options other than drastically slashing the number of postal facilities throughout the United States,” Shuler said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown is not so optimistic. Though he has also sent on a letter to the Postal Service, stating it would be a convenience to have both offices open, Brown said the post office would “likely” be closed.

“I’m just another citizen in the community,” Brown said “I don’t think my voice has much weight.”

Mary Ann Enloe, long-time mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville, said though the Biltmore facility was saved, Hazelwood has always been a middle-class community and residents there might not have the same clout as the customers in the upscale Biltmore area.

“My honest opinion is that we will probably lose this, not because of any ill will toward the community of Hazelwood but because the U.S. Postal Service sees it as a cost-saving measure,” Enloe said.

 

Fighting for survival

Whatever the outcome of the Postal Service’s review may be, no one can say Hazelwood residents didn’t put up a fight.

On the day Lynda Baltzell learned the Hazelwood post office might close, she became one of the leaders of a campaign to save it. She and others in the neighborhood took petitions to local businesses where they sat collecting signature after signature for three weeks.

“This is a small post office with a big heart,” said Baltzell.

Apparently, many Hazelwood residents feel the same way.

Those who walked into Within Reach Resale Shop were “very anxious” to sign, according to Linda Dirscherl, assistant manager at the store.

“They felt like it is needed in the neighborhood,” Dirscherl said.

The same went for customers at Smoky Mountain Roasters, where most who walked in also signed.

“All the people who come in and sign it say ‘Heck ya!’” said Lauren Lankford, an employee at the café.

Patty Atkinson, a sales clerk at Waynesville Pharmacy in the Hazelwood neighborhood, said so many people signed the petition there that she continually had to add additional pages.

Atkinson herself wrote to Shuler for the first time to try to save the post office. She sent a letter to the Postal Service’s district office in Charlotte as well. Atkinson stressed that many elderly residents use the Hazelwood post office, including veterans who should have the convenience of a nearby post office.

“I don’t think they realize just how much this post office is used,” said Atkinson.

Joe Moore of Hazelwood is one of the neighborhood veterans who will be saddened to see the post office go. Moore makes daily trips to check his post office box where he receives his prescription medicine. He’s worried about how he will get to his medicine if the post office closes.

“It’s a shame because I’m disabled,” said Moore. “I don’t go too much away.”

Moore said his primary concern is the prospect of waiting in long lines at the Waynesville post office.

“I’m worried about the time that it takes to get all this done, waiting in line if you’re not well,” said Moore. “I have to have my rest.”

But for others, the move would simply be a minor inconvenience.

Tammy Hutchison, who works at Hazelwood Family Medicine, runs to the post office three times a week and said she would miss getting her five minutes of fresh air walking there.

“Now I have to get in my car and go,” said Hutchison. “The parking at the new post office can be horrendous.”

Darlene Lowe, who regularly uses the main post office in Waynesville, said it is obviously busier than the one in Hazelwood.

“Parking can get a little crazy,” said Lowe. “I have been here when both parking lots are full. I must admit, I’ve gone to Hazelwood, and I’ve gotten right in.”

According to Moore, the Waynesville post office sees enough people as it is.

“There is no way that they can handle the traffic, they can’t now,” Moore said.

Kim Medford, manager of Carver’s Cloth Shop & Vertigo, deliberately avoids the Waynesville post office because going there is time-consuming, she said.

“This is a small town, but there are a lot of people here,” said Medford. “I think we need more than one post office.”

 

Disappearing Hazelwood

According to Enloe, the Postal Service had promised that the post office in Hazelwood would remain open when the towns of Hazelwood and Waynesville merged.

Enloe said she was told it would take an act of Congress to close it, since it was a stand-alone post office rather than a secondary branch.

Robbs with the Postal Service said the Hazelwood facility is now a branch of the Waynesville office, so the agency has full authority to close it.

While saving the Hazelwood post office is about convenience for some, other residents are also concerned about preserving a part of history. The post office was one obvious sign of Hazelwood’s former status as an independent town.

“The whole crux of it is we don’t want to give up that part of our identity,” said Enloe.

Atkinson wrote in her letters that that the post office has long been part of the Hazelwood community’s identity.

“I stressed that it was like losing our heritage because it has been here for so many years,” said Atkinson.

Even if the post office does close, thereby striking a blow to Hazelwood’s identity, few say the actual community will ever cease to be a community for its own residents.

“The people will still have the Hazelwood identity,” said Moore. “As for the rest of the world, they’re not going to know.”

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