Postal changes worry residents of tiny village near Denali park

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2007

FAIRBANKS - A retired postmaster and a soon to be retired post office building in Lake Minchumina have led the United States Postal Service to re-examine mail operations in the tiny village near Denali National Park and Preserve.

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Many in the community of 16, which can expand to 50 in the summer, worry possible changes could make life difficult in a place where neighbors live far away and the post office has become a communal point over time.

"It's kind of the heart of the community," said Julie Collins, a writer and president of the Lake Minchumina Homeowner's Association. "It's where people go to meet other people."

The Lake Minchumina Post Office operates out of the airport shop building originally built by the Civil Aviation Authority, a precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration, as one of 47 field locations scattered throughout the country to support America's lend-lease efforts with the then-Soviet Union during World War II.

Although the building is still owned by the FAA, it has been used by the Postal Service for mail operations since 1988. The nearby runway made the location a convenient place to unload mail flights coming in from Fairbanks.

However, for the past decade, the two organizations have been in negotiations to transfer the building into Postal Service control.

Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesman in Renton, Wash., did not know what held up the negotiations.

The Postal Service finally pulled out of the deal in January, after deciding it was "not a good investment," according to Ernie Swanson, a Postal Service spokesman based in Seattle.

Swanson said he did not know the terms of the deal.

Kenitzer said the Postal Service had not been paying to use the building and would not have paid to take control of the building.

The original shop building had two power generation facilities on site. When the FAA demolished one of them in 2000 it discovered widespread fuel contamination that had spread to the current post office.

Kenitzer said the easiest way to finish the cleanup effort would be to move the post office building to access the ground beneath it. However, if the FAA could not find a buyer to take the building, it would likely destroy it instead.

"Certainly we would prefer it if someone would take it," Kenitzer said.

Kenitzer said the Postal Service would not be responsible for finishing the cleanup if it took control of the building.

The Postal Service's decision to investigate possible changes to mail operations sparked concern throughout Lake Minchumina that the post office would be permanently closed or downgraded to a "no-office point," where a community designates one person to collect the mail and disseminate it from his or her home.

The Lake Minchumina post office is open several hours every weekday, and receives mail flights twice a week.

Stella Wildrick, who had been the postmaster for 15 years, retired from the position last Friday after a community-wide picnic also celebrating her husband's 70th birthday. The Postal Service has hired a temporary "officer in charge" from the community to manage Wildrick's duties.

The Postal Service recently sent a questionnaire to residents in Lake Minchumina to determine how the community uses various services offered by the post office.

Swanson said the decision to close or downgrade an office is always public and involves the community.

Before closing a post office location, the Postal Service regulations require an extended public comment period and an appeal process following any decision that together could take between seven months and a year.

Unless the Postal Service decides to take over control of the building, the lease expires on Sept. 30.

Swanson said he was not aware of similar examinations at other rural post offices in Alaska.

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