The residents of very small Red Lodge, Mont., struck a blow, this month, for keeping their town a town.
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
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
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
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 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
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.
Service was not receptive. Tafoya recalled one of the first public
"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."
"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."
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
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."
office is the social center of the community," Nellis concluded.
"It just makes sense to have it in the geographic center of the
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.