The forces for sprawling suburbanization are still all there: rising real estate prices, a major expansion at Red Lodge Mountain ski resort, and an influx of amenity-seeking newcomers attracted to the town's setting, 60 twisting miles from Yellowstone.
But when the new post office building opened Dec. 2, across the street from the old one, Red Lodge felt it had taken a step toward maintaining its identity.
In Red Lodge, as in most towns of less than 2,500 people, there is no home mail delivery. Residents must go to the post office, both to pick up mail and to pick up what's happening around town.
It may be the only time in a typical day that some elderly see other people. It's where newcomers get a sense of who else lives there and maybe make some contacts. It's like church on Sunday, except everyone belongs to the same denomination, and it takes place six days a week.
So when faced with a U.S. Postal Service proposal to put the new post office on the outskirts of town, where people would have to drive to it, the citizens of Red Lodge fought the move.
The old post office, built in 1963, is within Red Lodge's five-block historic central business district, and most people walk to the post office, said city councilman Richard Gessling.
In 1994, pointing to the area's ongoing and projected growth, the Postal Service proposed a new post office and advertised for sites. "Initially we couldn't find anything in town," said Bryant Schroeder of the agency's Denver facilities office. So the agency proposed to build a 9,000-square-foot facility, with 63,000 square feet of parking, at a site on the north end of the town, about 10 blocks from the old post office.-When they chose a location outside the central business district, it caused us major grief," said Gessling. "We felt it could lead to a collapse of our historic business district. The downtown would move to the new post office location, as it has in so many other places around the country."
"They were accustomed to building in a suburb, with cars," added city councilwoman Renee Tafoya. "They have no idea how it is to live in a small community where the post office is not just a warehouse for mail but a meeting place for the community. We weren't going to let some bureaucrat from some big city come and tell us where the heart of our town would be located, and how our town would work."
The post office proposal came as the city was developing a master land-use plan. Planning consultant Lee Nellis said: "A healthy downtown is like the bowl around a good soup. It's the physical container where all those diverse ingredients - bland and spicy - that make Red Lodge such an appealing place to live come together. No other part of the city can do that."
So Nellis and city officials came up with a site across the street from the existing post office by closing part of a city street, partitioning a school athletic field, and by doing a land swap for another lot.
The Postal Service was not receptive. Tafoya recalled one of the first public meetings:
"It was hostile. The room was filled, and people on the city council were angry. We felt the Postal Service was being authoritarian. They kept changing the rules about what they wanted in a site, making it difficult for us to propose an alternative."
Gessling said, "Because of our consternation, we rallied our congressmen and senators, getting their staffs involved. The Postal Service seems to have these problems everywhere they go. They tend not to ask the city where they should locate a post office. If they got more input from citizens and officials beforehand, it could save a lot of headaches on everybody's part."
The Postal Service's Schroeder agreed that "things were a little rocky at first." However, he had praise for the city officials. "We're always happy to work with communities to keep a post office in a desirable location. In Red Lodge, we were fortunate that the city had some property they were able to offer ... I'm happy with the location."
Not everyone in town is happy. Many residents say the facility is far larger than needed, or perhaps larger than they hope will be needed, for the town continues to grow. One local wag said, "All they really needed to do was open a second window." But city officials are pleased. "With this location, people can continue to walk to the post office, rather than drive," Gessling said. "And rather than the town lengthening, it's widening: we're developing a second Main Street parallel to the existing one."
"The post office is the social center of the community," Nellis concluded. "It just makes sense to have it in the geographic center of the town."
For more information, contact the City of Red Lodge (city clerk's office), 406/446-1606; Bryant Schroeder, USPS Denver Facilities office, 303/220-6528; Lee Nellis, 208/232-1277, or LNellis761@aol.com.
John Clayton is the author of Small Town Bound, Your Guide to Small Town Living, published by Career Press. He lives in Red Lodge, Mont.