OLNEY – To most people driving up U.S. Highway 93, Olney is a little more than a nondescript crossroad between Whitefish and Eureka. But take a left off the main drag and into the small town of 191 people and you’ll find a tight-knit community, anchored by a small blue and white building: the post office.
On a recent morning, Carey Steiner stopped in to drop off a few letters and pick up her mail, as well as chat about the recent news that the U.S. Postal Service could be shutting down this small rural outpost.
Last week, the Postal Service released a list of 3,700 retail offices that will be reviewed for possible closure. The list included 85 in Montana, including Dixon, Elmo, Stryker and Olney.
Pete Nowacki, a spokesman with the Postal Service, said if every branch listed was closed it would save the government agency approximately $200 million annually. Before that, however, the Postal Service will be talking to consumers to gauge the importance of each branch to their community. Nowacki said the earliest any post offices could close would be December.
“It’s part of an overall look at what we do, trying to figure out how we can do things better,” he said.
But it was unwelcome news in Olney.
“We’re dependent on the post office and we’re dependent on it for more than just mail,” she said.
Steiner lives near Good Creek, south of Olney. If the local retail offices in Olney and Stryker were to close, she would be forced to go elsewhere to get her mail, a daunting task in the middle of the winter when she uses a snowmobile to get around because of her remote location.
“Going to Whitefish or Eureka would be almost impossible in the dead of winter,” she said.
Steiner also said if the local office were to close, the town would lose another gathering spot.
“It’s a place for the community, for socializing,” she said. “You see neighbors you don’t get to see (normally).”
Neighbors like former fire chief Pat Libby, who has lived in the town for more than 40 years. Libby said losing the post office would be another blow to a town that’s now little more than a few homes, a shuttered store and a railroad crossing.
“When the school shut down, it shut the town down and the same could happen with the post office,” he said, standing in the lobby.
Libby was recently diagnosed with cancer and for now he is still able to drive into Whitefish or Kalispell to get his medications, but he said if his condition worsened he would have to have it sent through the mail, which could be impossible if the local post office was closed. He said it would be rough on many of the elderly who live there. According to the 2010 Census, more than one-fifth of the town’s population is over the age of 60.
“I’m hoping it stays,” Libby said. “I mean it’ll be rough on people if they moved it to town.”
According to Nowacki, those communities that do lose their post office would be provided with other options, including contracting the mail services to a local grocery store. He also touted the post office’s online services, but understood Internet access could be limited in more rural parts of the state.
Nowacki said no post office would be closed before its customers had been consulted, which would include either questionnaires sent in the mail or public meetings.
“No matter where you go, you’re going to have different responses. To some people the post office means a lot, while others will say it’s about time,” he said.
Thus far, the reaction from Montana’s U.S. delegation has been the former.
On July 28, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester called out the postmaster general for receiving an $800,000 salary, while proposing to slash services in rural areas.
“This is going to raise heck with rural America,” Tester said during a Senate hearing on the Postal Regulatory Commission.
The sentiment crossed party lines, with a similar response from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.
“Each of these post offices serves as a vital link for folks across the state,” Rehberg said in a statement to the Flathead Beacon. “The U.S. Postal Service has fundamental problems that need to be addressed, while Montana is willing to be part of the solution there is no reason their books need to be balanced on the backs of our rural communities.”
Communities like Olney, where Steiner and Libby chatted about the possible closing. Both of them were surprised their local office was on the list, especially considering the building was brand new, built less than two years ago.
“Typical government for you,” Libby scoffed, as he flipped through a handful of letters. “I don’t see any sense in it. I mean they just built a new one and now they want to shut it down.”
Steiner was more concise with her opinions.
“I’ll be pissed if they close this place,” she said, as she walked out the door.
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