PLAYING POST OFFICE is something little kids enjoy while they are in primary school. The game becomes even more entertaining for children in the pubescent years, when the rules change.
But the post office game is not a lot of fun when you're an adult, and they change the playing fields.
A post office should provide the appearance of dependable stability, of relative permanence, of defining presence. It identifies the heart of Main Street in many a small town, and large ones, too. It is as much a part of the community's center as a town hall, the courthouse or a library. More than just a convenience for people who live and work in a town, the post office is a reliable point of service for many who visit there.
Post offices and other town features change, so there's no sentiment here to stay forever frozen in the past. But there's an irretrievable loss for a community when the post office pulls out and settles elsewhere, albeit in the same ZIP code zone.
For town centers, the dislocation can seem another sign of economic erosion, as well as of shrinking importance.
Like the outlying shopping centers and malls, the post office heads for wider open spaces and bare ground on which to construct what the U.S. Postal Service calls state-of-the-art facilities (which don't deliver the local mail any faster than 50 years ago) in order to compete with the private delivery companies (which virtually didn't exist 50 years ago).
The Postal Service is planning a new post office for Westminster, at the northern edge of the Carroll County seat, next to the new Wal-Mart. The central post office, which has stood on Main Street for almost six decades, will be abandoned.
Sykesville is also losing its post office, which has been in the heart of the municipality for over 90 years. The larger replacement office will be located near the major intersection of Routes 32 and 26 in Eldersburg.
In both cases, leaders of these established communities are not moaning and fighting the planned move. They recognize the changing needs of the Postal Service to handle more mail, more customers and more parking in an efficient manner. They know that you can buy postage stamps at various places, and that private mailing centers have sprung up to provide some postal services.
"I think they expected me to cry," Sykesville Mayor Jonathan Herman said. "People can get emotional about this subject, but I have anticipated it for years." Westminster's planning chief, Thomas Beyard, spoke to the practical as well as the emotional implications. "Part of progress is not to forget your roots," he said. "You can still have progress and protect the integrity of downtown as well."
Keeping a post office presence in the town central business district is a goal of both communities, regardless of what ultimate use is found for the current buildings. They want assurances of a satellite office, a smaller branch that will continue to dispense postage and accept bulk mailings and parcels. "That's still extremely important to us, so we're still going to pursue it," Westminster Mayor Kenneth Yowan pledged.
The Postal Service told the communities about 10 years ago to expect a move, with no definite dates. So local officials have had ample warning, even if there wasn't much they could do about it.
Smaller places have been losing their traditional post offices, and postmarks have been losing their local flavor for many years. Consolidation of postal facilities and the conglomeration of communities into a single ZIP code has continued apace.
Cutting loose the nation's postal service from much of federal government control has meant a lessening of local political influence on the agency's decisions.
There's no need to chronicle here the pressures and developments that have driven the Postal Service to revamp and reorganize, to push the envelope (so to speak) on technological efficiencies. Bigger processing centers are needed to take advantage of those efficiencies, and to keep down the cost of a postage stamp (which is no longer taxpayer subsidized, as the Postal Service frequently reminds us.)
But the advantages of an outlying post office can be elusive, even if there is more parking space. The lines for counter service aren't any shorter. Lots of people who go to a town center expecting to find the usual government offices within walking distance don't relish a special car trip to the post office.
The Postal Service moved the old post office out of central Bel Air several years ago, relocating on the southern edge of the Harford County seat. The downtown business area still has not gotten over that loss; it was a rallying point in the fight to keep the old library in the town center. That new bigger post office has ample parking, but it isn't an easy drive from downtown. The move created a new opportunity for a private postal center near the county offices.
As consumer shopping habits shift to the outskirts, public services inevitably follow. But the removal of a post office from the heart of a town is too often a losing game.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 5/19/96