Friday, November 11, 2011

Post office observations

No exit for post offices? We can only wish.

Rural America is a necessity to a healthy United States and world. It's easy to stereotype the small town (currently, 4% of the cities in Kansas are 15,000 or larger) but Kansas and other rural states would be empty without them. It's time to find some alternative solutions to the crisis facing rural Kansas. This blog overviews the issue but what it's really about is making a case for finding solutions. What idea will be our "internet"?

Great thinkers once solved issues for the good of the whole

The history below shows how great thinkers saw the need to connect people in the country with those in the cities in order to make a better America. New communication systems led to the need for advanced roads and transportation systems.

"John Wanamaker of Pennsylvania was the first Postmaster General to advocate rural free delivery (RFD). Although funds were appropriated a month before he left office in 1893, subsequent Postmasters General dragged their feet on inaugurating the new service so that it was 1896 before the first experimental rural delivery routes began.

A byproduct of rural free delivery was the stimulation it provided to the development of the great American system of roads and highways. A prerequisite for rural delivery was good roads.

The impact of RFD as a cultural and social agent for millions of Americans was even more striking, and, in this respect, rural delivery still is a vital link between industrial and rural America."

General observations about the closure study process

Inconsistencies. It's unclear why some communities are on this list and not others. Most of the offices on the list of possible closures are rural, smaller offices with annual revenues of about $27,000 or less. In fact, at one location one business does $50,000 worth of business a year at the post office and, still, the post office is on the block.

Fairness. In some cases the notice of the community meeting happened within a day or two of the meeting. In other cases, neighboring postmasters were asked to facilitate the meeting.

Delivery. In most cases, it sounds like residents will be asked to erect mail boxes at their homes for delivery but if a package doesn't fit in the box they'll have to travel to the closest town with a post office to retrieve the package -- in some cases this ranges from 10-30 miles. Does this really save money if a route carrier now has to deliver mail to each house instead of making a drop at one post office? Some towns have been told they'll have to drive to the next town to even pick up their regular mail. Again, this ranges from 10-30 miles for some.

Why rural?

Reasonable. We have to be reasonable. Volume of mail is down with the use of other means of communication. But it seems like rural is the fall guy for issues out of our control:

"Taken from "5 things you need to know about the U.S. Postal Service."
Operationally speaking, the USPS nets profits every year. The financial problem it faces now comes from a 2006 Congressional mandate that requires the agency to “pre-pay” into a fund that covers health care costs for future retired employees. Under the mandate, the USPS is required to make an annual $5.5 billion payment over ten years, through 2016. These “prepayments” are largely responsible for the USPS’s financial losses over the past four years and the threat of shutdown that looms ahead – take the retirement fund out of the equation, and the postal service would have actually netted $1 billion in profits over this period.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the USPS’s financial situation is good. Revenue has been declining for years, and even if the agency manages to get past this year’s $5.5 billion payment, it would again face insolvency next year."

Easy target. Rural communities are an easy target. Even if 75% or more of the population turns out for the required community meeting, these numbers, in the larger scheme of things, are small. Because rural communities aren't organized as a collective, it's hard to have a voice loud enough to be heard.

Does it matter? Legislators and United States Congressmen/women have been supportive to varying degrees (special thanks to Senator Moran) but is anyone stepping back and looking at the whole picture of what the loss of 150-400 post offices in the state will do to the strength of Kansas as a vital place to live and do business? This isn't just about losing the post office but this threat contributes to the devolving of rural communities.

It's not just the post office. The potential loss of the post office is another strike at the identity of a community. The school may already be gone, a source of identity. Now the post office. Though the zip code can be kept and the name of the town can still be put on letters, there is still the effect of losing your identity.

Making the argument

As we (rural) await the verdict, we are concerned about the change in essential service and what it will mean to each individual, but the worry is more about what this means for the community. The post office is a gathering place, a place to put notices, a place to do business, a place to receive prescriptions, a place for human interaction.

It's true that it is simply time for some post offices to close. Even the townspeople know when it's time. But in other cases, it just doesn't make any sense. Even with the acknowledgement that mailing a bill and sending a birthday greeting can be done exclusively via electronic means, there is still a lot of business being done through the mail. Furthermore, some communities still do not have high speed internet nor decent cell service to make other means of communication a good option.

But here's the thing. Like so many issues, this one is treated as if in a vacuum. Agencies are managing a single issue yet the community is affected by multiple issues and how each one rearranges the bigger picture.

What can we do now?

Many of the towns on this list of 152 are not ready to fold up and die no matter what happens with the post office issue. They may look pretty straggly to those looking in from the outside who aren't familiar with rural living but there is likely more sense of community and economic livelihood going on than can be seen with a windshield survey. In some cases, the farmers and ranchers drive that economic engine and they and their families rely on the community for many basics.

Instead of just fighting the post office closures, let's try to also look at this in a forward-looking manner. The primary loss of the physical post office would be the ease in sending anything bigger than a letter and the ability for an individual or business to receive items bigger than their mail box. The secondary loss is the post office as a social gathering spot.

Can both of these issues be solved with creative solutions? In simplest terms, what is needed is a generic gathering spot that results in these same interactions and a central and accessible location to handle the larger mail issues.

Though 152 communities are on the list, there are another 150 that will likely have service altered. With almost half of the towns in the state affected by a loss of or change in postal service, a common solution needs to be developed. Most communities are fighting the post office closure as well as they can within the rules. But if they had an adequate alternative, they could look at all of this with more optimism.

What is that alternative? It's out there. It's a matter of getting the right minds together to figure out the solution. We need the brightest minds of all ages who want to be part of the solution in transforming rural communities into a New Rural age with old-time community soul.

Signing off from Get Kansas!

KE #2 Marci Penner

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our post office journey on November 9, 2011

1 day. 7 post offices. $381.56 worth of stamps. 440 miles.

There is nothing like experiencing an issue firsthand and looking in the eyes of the people who are living the issue.

I had been getting e-mails and phone calls from people concerned about losing their post offices. At some point, you can't just have these conversations and not do something about it.

Kansas Sampler Foundation assistant director WenDee LaPlant and I decided to pick a road and visit all the towns on that highway that had post offices that are on the list for possible closing. We chose K-99 and several miles on either side because it had seven post offices on the list between the Oklahoma and Nebraska borders. Our plan was to visit with the postmaster and people coming in the post office and buy $50 worth of stamps at each place.

  • Chautauqua, Chautauqua County
  • Peru, Chautauqua County
  • Elk Falls, Elk County
  • Hamilton, Greenwood County
  • Admire, Lyon County
  • Summerfield, Marshall County
  • Home, Marshall County
This blog is the more social overview of each stop. The more serious observations of the post office issue will follow in the next post.

The first stop was in Chatauqua (population 98) near the Oklahoma border.

After being greeted on the sidewalk by Rudy Taylor of the Montgomery County Chronicle, one cat and two dogs, we went in to meet Emma, the postmaster. She had just finished vacuuming and was ready to start the day. We had a wonderful visit and learned the building was originally a feed store.

We bid Emma farewell and with her encouragement we stopped at The Store to meet the Chautquaua mayor, Audrey. After a short but enjoyable visit we were on our way to the Peru post office.

We got to Peru (population 160) and I went in to visit with David, the postmaster. Little did I know that after I went inside, a truck pulled up beside us and called to WenDee. It was Emma's husband! He had tracked us down. We didn't know it but Emma had thought we asked for 50 stamps so that is what she had given us. When we left, she looked at our check and saw it was for $50.40. She called her husband to come get the rest of the stamps and find us. Only in a small town...

At every post office, the role of community gathering spot was obvious as people would come and go. We learned that more than one postmaster would watch for certain people and if they didn't come in to get their mail, they would call them to make sure they were OK. Only in a small town...

Jennifer Brummel, Elk County Economic Development Director and Youth Development Coordinator, met us at the Elk Falls (population 104) post office.

When asked if the post office was going to have an entry in next weekend's Outhouse Festival, postmaster Lecia's eyes lit up. She told us the extremely clever name for their entry but it can't be revealed yet. (The festival is Nov. 18-19). We bought our stamps and Jennifer ordered some for her upcoming wedding thank you cards!

An elderly local woman came in. She was very distraught about losing the post office. She said, "This is MY place. I've been coming her since I was nine. I don't want to lose it."

Before we left town, we tracked down Steve and Jane Fry. They were at their "secret garden" house. Talk about ingenious people. We got to see the new bunkhouse upstairs in the barn. As would be expected from Steve and Jane, they have created a cozy atmosphere with the most unique use of recycled materials, ceramics, and personal touch. The 1930s concrete elephants and sculptures in the "garden" were standing proud and visible. Good to see them shine again!

On to Admire, population 176. We received a warm welcome from friends Dee Reid, Ann Birney, and Joyce Thierer. They gave us a tour of the community center which is in the school that closed at the end of the 2010 school year. The locals are also developing a nice museum in the school. I'm sure it feels like a bittersweet development to be using the school that way.

It was great to meet, Mike, the postmaster, who also made our sandwiches-to-go at the Last Chance Cafe. By the way, this post office was also a feed store at one time.

The drive through Wabaunsee County was beautiful. We admired the stone fences along the winding roads. The hardest part of our trip was driving through towns like Sedan, Howard, Madison, Olpe, Emporia, Eskridge, Alma, Westmoreland and others and not being able to stop and see things and say hi to folks.

Hamilton, population 309. Katherine, the postmaster, knew we were coming. Word had traveled down the road. While visiting about Hamilton, a local business owner came in and talked about how they choose to do business through the post office to support it but they'll find other options when the post office closes. I had to wonder if the U.S.P.S. knows how much loyalty locals have had for their post office but will choose different options if the local post office closes.

Hamilton still has their school and it's led by a dynamo superintendent. They have two restaurants, a classic soda fountain, and lots of ranchers and oil and gas business in the area. People just driving through may not always see the behind-the-scenes thrive-ability in these towns, but it's there.

Down the road...

In Wamego, we did a quick drive by the city park to see the handsome building for the mini-train. It looks terrific! Bunny and Gary McCloud responded to our "Put your stamp on it" sponsorship notice so as we drove through Wamego, Bunny met us in the turn lane along side K-99 across from the Wamego Telecommunications building. She gave us her warm smile and handed us a $100 bill to help with the stamp purchases and gas!

On to Summerfield, population 199, in Marshall County. The streets were full of cars. It looks like the community-owned grocery store continues to do well, too. And, I'm anxious to come back to see the working blacksmith shop!

We met the postmaster and bought our stamps. A local business, does a great business and everything is sent out through the post office. I don't see how it will be possible for this entrepreneur to continue shipping through the post office if the physical p.o. closes. This is another chunk of revenue the U.S.P.S. will likely lose.

Our last stop of the day was at Home. How appropriate. Home is one of the top two thriving unincorporated cities in the state (Healy is the other). We first went over to the Feed and Grain store across from the post office. It's located in an old bank and is just brimming with character. Kansas pride oozes out of owner's Jim and Pat, as does their affection for Home. They raved about the restaurant across the street opened by a young couple in town. We had a great discussion about the post office and issues of small towns.

We found Elaine and bought our stamps. It's so interesting to meet these very dedicated post office workers. Elaine also drives school bus. Joanne from the Marysville Advocate and Emily from Blue Valley Telecommunications were there, too.

This was a great prelude to our guidebook research journey that will take us to every town in the state in the next two years. From the Chautauqua springs to our last stop at Home, this was a day that reaffirms the fortitude and spirit of the Kansas people as well as the richness and multitude of explorer attractions in the state.

Chautauqua springs in Chautauqua is still flowing.
In this case, it flows into an oxidized tea pot.
Remnants of the old historic hotel can still be seen.
This is now a beautiful green space.
Look for the single arched stone bridge, too.

Get Kansas! by just picking a highway and a purpose for your trip and you'll learn alot about our state.

KE #2 Marci Penner

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Put your stamp on November 9

Below is a list of communities that have been notified that their post office may be closed. This list represents twenty-four percent of the communities in Kansas.

Tomorrow, November 9, WenDee and I will be traveling K-99 from the Oklahoma border to Nebraska to visit seven towns on this list (Chautauqua, Peru, Elk Falls, Hamilton, Admire, Home and Summerfield). We will spend $50 at each and try to interview some of the locals. We'll post on Facebook ("Like" the Kansas Sampler Foundation page or check out Marci Penner's page). Post what you're doing tomorrow to support these communities.

It's devastating to lose such a primary business.

What does this mean for Kansas?

















Bluff City










Cedar Point
















Elk Falls












Geuda Springs


















Long Island



Lost Springs














Neosho Falls

Neosho Rapids

New Cambria









Pawnee Rock





Prairie View















Sun City










West Mienral


White Cloud






Being concerned about this helps you "Get Kansas!"

KE #2 Marci Penner

Monday, November 7, 2011

The PowerUp Movement

Things are changing in rural Kansas communities.

Access to telecommunication, schools, health care, and basic business services, including the postal system, are being threatened in numerous ways. Retaining the wealth from one generation to the next is another issue. There is a great deal of talk about depopulation and youth leaving rural communities.

We could make a longer list about the concerns and bemoan our plight. Or, we could look at all of this as a call to action and an opportunity to hit the refresh button, find our strengths, and create a New Rural.

One myth to be busted is that more young people than realized are staying or moving back to rural communities -- and doing it by choice. You usually hear about young people moving out as fast as they can but the quiet truth is that there are lots of young people wanting to be in these communities.

It just makes sense that a thriving community would have a nice mix of ages, including young families that are excited about being in a particular community as well as older people who have lived there most of their lives and have contributed in numerous ways to community life. Just like it takes a blend of ingredients to make a delicious entree, it also takes a blend of positive and thoughtful energy from PowerUps (21-39s who are rural by choice) and PowerOns (40+ are passionate about rural living) to create a community that is desirable to all.

PowerOns (40+ who are passionate about rural living), many of you have given an incredible amount of energy to volunteer efforts for the good of your town. Now, we need to be aware that to keep these activities going and to continue to shape the town as a desirable place to live, we have to open our ears to the PowerUps (21-39s who are rural by choice). Maybe we're a little scared that they'll just want to take over and that they won't even notice what we've been doing or the successes we've had. Will they want to just change everything? Put your fears aside and move forward with PowerUps!

I know many of you already are great role models and supports to young people. Do you know what that makes you? A reason why they should choose to live in your town.

PowerUps, it's likely that you have dreams for your self and your family and that you also see possibilities for the community, or things you'd like to see changed or added. We want you to love living in the rural community you've chosen and to be a positive force.

Maybe you'll come upon some older folks who don't know how to listen and it might seem like they want everything done their way. Treat them with respect and ask them questions about their lives, especially about when they were PowerUp age. Get to know each other. And, know this. Most PowerOns want to help you succeed. They realize that the community needs your ideas and efforts.


A community is like a family. And, that's what we are in a small community. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that we need both PowerUps and PowerOns to willingly work together and support each other. And, then there are those Sparks nipping at our heels to get involved, too. The communities that will survive and thrive are those that will blend PowerUps and PowerOns together for a beneficial mix.


We've scheduled six meetings around the state in November so that PowerUps can come together and get used to talking about what they want out of their lives and what they need and would like to see in the community.

RSVP to would be appreciated.

NOVEMBER 14, 5:30 p.m.
St. Joe Store, 2801 Noble Road, downtown St. Joseph in Cloud County

NOVEMBER 14, 5:30 p.m.
City Hall, 616 S. Main, LaHarpe in Allen County

NOVEMBER 22, 5:30 p.m.
Community Center, 403 S. Main, Hudson (Stafford County)

NOVEMBER 29, 6 p.m. CT; 5 p.m. MT
City Hall, Elm Street and Wheeler, Coolidge (Hamilton County)

NOVEMBER 29, 5:30 p.m.
Prairie Junction Restaurant, 516 W. Main, Morland (Graham County)

NOVEMBER 30, 5:30 p.m.
Community Center, 901 Commercial, Havensville (Pottawatomie County)

PowerUp Liaisons, Liz Sosa from Garden City and Erika Nelson from Lucas, will be leading these conversations.

If you want Liz or Erika to help arrange a meeting in your town, let us know.

Every town has their own story of how the PowerUps and PowerOns get along. Some of you have probably figured it all out already so send your success stories and advice!

Thanks for listening. I’ll be writing more on this subject and would love to hear your thoughts.

Ask a PowerUp how they like living in your community and you'll “Get Kansas”!

KE #2 Marci Penner