Scramble on to find home for downtown post office|[02/05/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mayor Laurence Leyens and directors of two community organizations are scrambling to find a solution to the looming threat of a loss of postal window and box service downtown.

The looming change is now down to the wire, and Leyens said reaction must be quick.

“The decision has been made. They’ve said, ‘We’re leaving,'” Leyens said at a meeting he arranged Monday to try to resolve the issue.

After a phone call to U.S. Postal Service officials last week, Leyens said he would call back this week with another option, that will hopefully, encourage keeping a downtown presence. So far, USPS has announced four times the need for another downtown location, but has had no takers to operate a contractual service inside an existing business.

Since about 1935, USPS has operated a postal center in its Crawford Street building, the headquarters for postal traffic until the Pemberton Square Boulevard building was built in 1992. For many, the downtown post office, which has dwindled to offer only post office boxes and a customer service window with one staff member and limited hours, has served as the only stop for sending and receiving mail.

Talk of closing the downtown operation surfaced more than a decade ago under former Mayor Robert Walker’s administration, Leyens said. Referring to regulars who depended — and continue to depend — on the convenience of a downtown post office, Leyens remembers former Sen. Trent Lott getting involved to ensure the post office remained open.

“There was a violent uproar until Trent Lott got involved to stop the closure,” Leyens said.

Continuing operation in the lower level of the five-story federal building, now privately owned by Delta Court LLC, is no longer an option. The building, once filled with local federal agencies and a U.S. District Court, is now vacant except for the lower lobby. With construction to begin soon on a planned luxury hotel, the lobby is without heat or air and is becoming, according to Leyens’ conversation with USPS, a safety hazard.

Since last April, when USPS officials first announced the downtown boxes and limited services would go, Christi Kilroy, director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, and Rosalie Theobald, director of Vicksburg Main Street, have worked to find a space that could provide a contract postal unit, or satellite post office, to fit the needs of downtown. Both were at the meeting Monday to discuss possible solutions, most of which have been tapped. Theobald said the only interest, so far, has been from Mike Davis, owner of The Vicksburg, an apartment building. His interest, however, fizzled because of space and parking problems in his existing Clay Street building, she said.

“He couldn’t get the set-up right,” Theobald said.

The units, which take up about 150 square feet, are operated by businesses or individuals under a partnership with USPS. They provide a place to purchase stamps and other products, as well as a center to mail letters and packages. Post office boxes would also be part of the plan. For housing and operating the postal unit, the post office gives a percentage to the business, as well as a percentage on box rentals. Leyens said income from the operation would be between $40,000 and $45,000, but part of that would have to pay a current or hired staff person, whom USPS would train, to run it.

While profit might not be great, Kilroy noted the potential to bring in additional business.

Relying on that idea, the group has sought to encourage a downtown business owner to house the postal unit as a means of increasing foot traffic. Leyens invited Annette Kirklin of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation to sit in and see if the service might benefit the nonprofit organization, currently staffed by two people.

“It could be another potential source for revenue,” he said.

Although Kirklin didn’t immediately decline, Leyens himself pointed out issues with parking and staff the center would face.

Plagued by roadblocks, Leyens has even pondered whether the city could lend a hand to fill what many agree would be a huge void in Vicksburg. He said he has offered city-owned space, but only if USPS would provide a staff to run the operation. The trend of postal units, which are used in a smattering of cities across the state, including Jackson and Pearlington, requires a staff person be contracted through the business that houses the unit.

“We can’t get into the business of running a post office,” Leyens said. “Yeah, we could put it in, say, water and gas, but that’s way beyond the scope of responsibility of municipal government. We’re not going to pick up where the federal government is dropping the ball.”

Still, he is hopeful someone will step up to provide a solution to keeping a post office downtown.

“We’re going to be in bad shape,” Theobald said. “But, when we don’t have any takers, what are you going to do?”