The U.S. Postal Service wants to deliver a nice little centennial birthday gift to the tiny mountain town of Ward: a brand-new post office. And what do the people of Ward say? Return to sender.
This century-old burg, which rests in a bowl west of Boulder just off Highway 72, has only about 170 residents, many of whom look like Sixties survivors. And it also has all the necessities: police department, fire department, a general store and a century-old town hall, inside of which is a post office.
But the Postal Service plans to build a new post office--one with indoor bathrooms instead of outhouses--up on the highway. And that rubs many of Ward's residents the wrong way, in part because their current post office is a centrally located meeting place, and they like it just fine.
"People meet their neighbor when they go to the post office," says Mayor Jill Sturdevant, who also owns the general store. But that neighborly feeling doesn't extend to the federal government: A bumper sticker plastered to the door of the general store--"I love my country but I fear my government"--sums up the attitude of many Ward residents in the current dispute.
"We want to keep the post office right for our community, and not what some Washington bureaucrat's idea of what it has to be," says Warren Musselman, sitting across from the bumper sticker.
Musselman and others say they have practical concerns as well. Opponents of the move are particularly upset about the site of the proposed new post office--they would have to negotiate a steep hill to climb up to it. The new site, they say, is also snowier and windier. And that's a factor in Ward, which is likely to experience snow any month of the year.
"It's very windy up there," says Sandy Cruz, one of six members of the Ward town council. "I have been picked up off the ground up there."
Besides rebelling at the idea of having to trek to their post office, the residents point out that the current office is in a historic building. And if historic buildings are what give an old town its personality, then Ward is swimming in it. In fact, almost every building in Ward is historic in one way or another. There's a church that's a century old and still going strong and a couple of old hotels. For now, at least, the little town is hardly sullied by modern structures.
"Everyone here is a historian," says Diane Hill, whom Warren Musselman calls the "town historian." "The people in Ward are very interested in their history. They love their history; they live their history."
Mayor Sturdevant's general store has been around since 1898, and many of the residents who show up there don't buy anything; they simply talk. And when the talk comes around to the new post office, more often than not they say, "It sucks."
But it's going to happen, if the Postal Service has its way. "The office we have is simply not large enough to serve the area effectively," says Teresa Rudkin, Western-region spokeswoman for the Postal Service. Rudkin adds that this is the third time the Postal Service has tried to give Ward a new office; the other attempts failed because a suitable site couldn't be found.
The new site, townspeople argue, is hardly suitable. The road leading up to the site of the new post office is both narrow and has a sharp turn that Musselman says can be very difficult to maneuver when it gets icy. Sturdevant claims that getting the mail will turn into a full-blown adventure.
"More people will drive," she says. "People will be less likely to send their kids up to get the mail, because the road is so far away and the road is often treacherous."
But the Postal Service's Rudkin says many of the issues the townspeople have raised are secondary. The primary issue, she says, is that the current post office is not big enough.
"We are focusing on providing the best service in that area," Rudkin says. "It all comes down to space: We need more than what we have. We need twice as much as what we have in order to be effective. We need to have the room to process the mail. These changes aren't visible to a Ward townsperson."
The residents counter Rudkin's arguments by saying they're willing to compromise. They don't want a new post office in their downtown area, because they say it would clash with the town's historic buildings. But they have offered to sacrifice 200 square feet of the town hall to increase the current post office from 410 square feet to 610 square feet. They also say they will put in a compost toilet to replace the outhouses. Moreover, they insist they are trying to find a way to make the office more suitable for disabled customers.
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What does the town's postmaster say about all this? "I'm trying very hard to stay neutral, but I do have a side, yes," says Bill Henderson. The postmaster since 1984, Henderson describes the current office as "barely adequate," quickly adding, "and that's stretching it." Still, Henderson has tried to stay outside the battle by refusing to state his opinion publicly.
The rest of the town hasn't been shy about that. Cruz says that at a meeting the council held a few weeks ago to solicit opinion on the dispute, all twenty people who showed up wanted the post office to stay put. "I haven't heard anyone say they wanted it to move," she says. The town has obtained about 170 customer-service forms from the Postal Service to allow residents to express their gripes.
Not that it would matter.
"If the town says, 'We don't care that you need more space, we just want to keep it here,' then no, that won't work," says Rudkin. "We are going to do what's best for the town. Just because a customer doesn't see the challenges doesn't mean they don't exist."
If everything goes according to plan, Rudkin says, the soonest the new post office will be erected is next fall; the latest would be the fall of 1998.