This holiday season, residents in Livingston, Mont., are hoping that the United States Postal Service will deliver word of salvation.
Amid the avalanche of Christmas cards, mail-order fruit cakes, and bundled packages, folks here say they want nothing more than to have their downtown post office saved from the scrap heap of history.
While such a request would be a tall order for even a team of fabled reindeer, the ultimate decision in this case lies with US Postmaster General Marvin Runyon.
Today, this Montana village is at the center of a quiet national controversy. The debate swirls around plans from the Postal Service to close down or relocate hundreds of small-town post offices from proverbial Main Streets where they have been the social pillars of rural America's identity since the days of the pony express.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., says the matter is serious enough that next month it may ask the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Postal Service, to hold oversight hearings when Congress convenes.
From Sylvester, Ga., to Madison, Conn., "it is the same story line," says Laura Skaggs, a researcher at the trust. "You can change the cast of local characters ... and the zip code, but the plot remains the same."
Since the early 1980s, more than 2,000 post offices have been targeted because either shrinking rural populations made them no longer viable or, as in Livingston's case, the outdated building cannot keep up with an increasing flow of mail and comply with such issues as access for the handicapped.
Livingston councilwomen Caron Cooper and Sheryl Dahl - who organized a local revolt - say they first heard about the change in a newspaper ad stating an alternative site on the outskirts of town would be selected in 30 days. "It was basically presented to us as a done deal," says Ms. Cooper.
When citizens complained, Postal Service officials at the regional office in Denver, characterized the opposition as "a fringe movement." But when 1,500 signatures (out of 7,500 local residents) were collected in four days, postal officials realized they had a groundswell of protest on their hands.
The protests are "happening everywhere" Cooper says, "but there has been no unified resistance nationally because each community believes it is struggling against a big government bureaucracy on its own."
Cooper and Ms. Dahl argue the $3.1 million earmarked for a new building could be better spent upgrading the old one, but postal officials have reacted tepidly to that option. Last week, postal authorities refused to allow architects with the state historical preservation office to tour the site.
Dating back to 1912, Livingston' s brick and sandstone post office has been a social hub for generations of locals in the old railroad town located an hour north of Yellowstone National Park. The relationship is a special one, though it is no different from the bond developed in every hamlet across America large enough to have a postmaster.
"Anyone who tells you that we are abandoning small-town America is misrepresenting the truth," says national Postal Service spokesman Frank Brennan in Washington. "We' re well aware of the sentimental attachment that our customers have to the old post office buildings and we recognize that we're as important to the fabric of America as cars, roads, and trees."
But Mr. Brennan says that most small-town rural post offices lose money. During the '80s, about 150 post offices a year were either closed or relocated. In 1995 alone, that number had climbed to 239.
Critics charge that the Postal Service has helped perpetuate the erosion of downtown areas by hastily relocating its facilities. While no long-term socioeconomic studies have been completed measuring the impact of the closings or relocations, Ms. Skaggs and others say there is no denying the ripple effects. Because citizens in small towns often regard the post office as the heart of their community, its departure changes traffic patterns and traditional behavior of local residents.
"Even if a town is growing outward that doesn't mean there isn't economic and social vitality at the core," Skaggs says. "If you abandon the core ... It takes a toll on business, it takes a toll on community spirit."
Montana Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Conrad Burns (R) are closely monitoring the controversy in Livingston and their interest has reportedly drawn the attention of national Postmaster Runyon.
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 says that no post office can be closed because it operates in a deficit, says the trust. There must be extenuating circumstances such as a hazardous work environment for employees, poor parking, and declining efficiency in the face of population growth.
The need for new post offices is especially apparent in the West where an increasing volume of mail has overwhelmed facilities built before World War II, says Bryant Schroeder, a real estate specialist at the Postal Service's office in Denver.
"We try very hard to work with communities and in most cases the arrangement works out real well," Mr. Schroeder says. "But we realize that every time we move a post office site it's going to have a negative impact on some people and a positive impact on others."
Postmaster Bill Parry, who oversees a post office in tiny Bridger, Mont., says he has worked in four communities which experienced the same kind of angst playing out in Livingston. "Grocery stores are leaving downtown for the strip, too, but that doesn't seem to arouse the same passions as the place where people buy their stamps," he says.
Last week, Livingston residents were delivered some hopeful news. Postal officials say they'll delay a final decision on the relocation until the middle of January and may consider remodeling the old building if adjacent land becomes available. "We are waiting for some heroes to step forward from within the agency," says Skaggs. "This is a textbook example of the community speaking out on behalf of one position but being ignored. There are a lot of other towns waiting to see how this turns out.