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Small west central Minn. towns deliver message: We need our local post offices

Watson is among the communities under review for the possible closing of its post office. Community leaders are concerned about the possible loss of the service, and the loss of identity that its closing could represent. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

WATSON -- During the summer, a daily ritual for 90-year-old Ernest Solseth was to putt-putt his way downtown to the post office on his riding lawn mower.

Postmistress Jodi Williamson never missed a beat, and dashed out of the Watson post office to hand Solseth his mail and save him the need to climb up the steps.

"I would hate to see the post office go,'' Solseth said.

He's one of many in the Chippewa County community of just over 200 people who are writing letters and signing a petition pleading with the United States Postal Service to reconsider its proposal to close the office. The Watson office is one of 88 post offices added on July 27 to the original 28 in Minnesota under review for closure.

Some communities, including Hanley Falls in Yellow Medicine County, could know the status of the first phase of that review in a matter of days. "It's kind of a life line,'' said Mayor Richard Hagen of the town's post office. His community has also organized a mail campaign and petition.

Hagen said the post office is only a few hundred dollars from operating at the $27,000 threshold of annual sales that was used to develop the list of small town offices for possible closure. The community is challenging how the Postal Service is calculating both its revenues and expenses. It does not count the $25,000 in annual postal activity generated by the Farmer's Cooperative Elevator of Hanley Falls as part of the post office retail revenue because the company has its own postal meter, according to the mayor.

Scott Dubbelde, the elevator's general manager, said the cooperative sends all of its mail through the Hanley Falls post office. Its closing would represent a hardship to both its operations and the town. "I sure hope they take it off the list and keep it open,'' he said.

In Watson, the possible closing comes just after the community invested $5.5 million in new water and sewer infrastructure. The town feels it is on the rebound and has opportunities for growth, said Mayor Joe Rongstad.

A new Main Street business is about to open and the community's houses are filled, many with young families, according to Rongstad. Nearly one-third of the town's residents are children under age 19, according to census data.

The town's seniors would probably feel the closing the most. They have the most difficulty getting around, he said.

If the post office is closed, the Postal Service would likely deliver mail to "clusters'' of mail boxes in the community, said Susan Brickweg, Watson city clerk. Residents could catch the rural carrier to have packages weighed and taken, she said.

The City Hall could also serve as a "village post office'' and sell stamps and other postal products.

Or, residents would have to travel to the post office in Montevideo.

The prospect of a half-hour round trip to Montevideo concerns Peggy Gilbertson, who along with her husband, Brett, operates 1st Minnesota Realty Inc. and Western Crop Protection in a building across the street from the post office in Watson. Gilbertson said she picks up and sends a stack of mail each day, and absolutely depends on mail service for the two businesses.

Even the owners of the town's convenience store and gas station worry about the harm that the closing would cause. Mike Clausen, of the Corner Store on Highways 7/59, said there is a noticeable uptick in business when local residents make their daily treks to pick up the mail.

"I hate to see anything close in a small town,'' said Clausen, who runs the business with his wife, Deb.

The mayors in both Watson and Hanley Falls said they are at an unfair disadvantage. There really are no specific criteria established for keeping or closing an office, they said.

In general, the post office is proposing to close those where expenses exceed revenues, but other factors matter.

Hagen believes that other factor in Hanley Falls is its proximity to Cottonwood and Granite Falls. Other, smaller post offices are not on the list but would be more difficult to serve due to the greater distance to other post offices, he explained.

Along with rural offices, the Postal Service is also proposing to close a number of metropolitan branch post offices as well as some distribution centers.

The rural communities feel they are being asked to make the greater sacrifice. The closing of a post office means so much more in a small town, noted Rongstad. It can make the difference in where a family or business decides to locate.

"It seems that once a community loses its post office, they do kind of lose their identity,'' said Rongstad.

Other communities in the region also under review for post office closings include: Sunburg in Kandiyohi County; Clontarf, Danvers and Holloway in Swift County; Correll in Big Stone; and Porter in Yellow Medicine.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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