What’s a town without a post office? Tiny Aripeka might be there again soon

Published September 13 2018

ARIPEKA

One day last week, as she does every three or four days, Diana Hohimer left her double-wide trailer home at the back of Aripeka’s RV park to make the walk, a little less than a mile, to the post office. She passed the home of a woman, now in her 30s, who went to elementary school with Hohimer’s son. She pointed out the old house where her first husband lived nearly 40 years ago.

"Can’t believe it hasn’t disintegrated," she said.

Nothing much has changed in the 32 years she’s lived in Aripeka, said Hohimer, 56. The coastal town straddling the Pasco-Hernando county line is home to about 300 people. They still fish for dinner from the bridge, still congregate at the old store, still — for now — walk to the post office for their mail.

But word is spreading that this tiny town’s tiny post office may close next month, with the building’s owner fed up with the U.S. Postal Service and unlikely to renew its lease. The Postal Service said last week it has no plans to close.

A closure could force residents, many of whom don’t get home delivery, to drive miles out of their way to get mail. And in a small town with few gathering places, shuttering the post office could feel like a big change.

• • •

The situation in Aripeka nearly mirrors that of five years ago, when the post office closed for about two months.

In 2013, the building’s previous owner said the Postal Service surprised her with a long, cumbersome lease proposal after years of single-page agreements. When she declined to sign it, they announced the closure.

The Pasco County side of Aripeka doesn’t get home mail delivery, and though the Hernando side is eligible for it, many residents there still depend on their free post office boxes. For two months after it closed, residents made the 15-mile round trip to the post office in Hudson.

Eventually, Carl Norfleet bought the property and made a deal with the Postal Service. A lifelong Aripekan with deep roots in the community — the store by the bridge is named for his family — Norfleet said he wanted to give back to his town.

But in the five years since, he said, he’s butted heads with Postal Service officials. First, it was a delay in reopening the office after a flood a few years ago, and more recently over rent and terms of the lease.

"It got a little nasty," Norfleet said, "and I just no longer trust the post office."

Emails that Norfleet provided to the Tampa Bay Times show him corresponding with a Postal Service employee, who has a usps.gov email address and identifies himself as a contractor specializing in real estate.

In the emails, Norfleet tells the contractor the Postal Service can buy his building outright for $50,000, but he said he no longer has interest in working with them.

Debra J. Fetterly, the Postal Service spokeswoman for the Suncoast District offered this on Tuesday: "The Postal Service continues to work closely with the lessor to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties."

• • •

Hohimer was checking her mail one day in late July when she overheard the postmaster tell another resident the post office might close. She talked to Norfleet, a friend, who confirmed the rumor. She wondered what would happen next, especially for her neighbors who are elderly, disabled or without reliable transportation.

She struck up conversations with neighbors about the post office closing. Just last week, she said, she talked to 20 or 25 people, none of whom knew they may have to go elsewhere for their mail.

She hung a petition on the bulletin board outside the post office in an effort to save it.

If it won’t keep the post office, Norfleet said the Postal Service should institute home delivery for the whole town. And if someone figures out a way to keep the post office, he said, that’s great — but he doesn’t want to be involved.

"I would be very happy to see that the post office stays here for the people of Aripeka," he said. "But I’m not going to be the guy to help it there."

• • •

The Aripeka post office sits next door to its predecessor, an older and even smaller wooden structure that once housed the mail. Its doors are locked, but a look through the window reveals little besides a scale and a half-dozen P.O. boxes. A sign in front marks it as the "Aripeka Historic District" and claims that Babe Ruth visited the village decades ago.

The working post office is slightly larger than its forebearer, with a mail slot, an office hours sign and a few hundred narrow boxes lining the walls in neat rows. Hohimer slid her key into Box 189 and retrieved a couple of bent envelopes.

"Mostly bills," she said. "I didn’t win the lottery or anything."

On her route to the post office and back home, she chatted with other residents about the post office’s possible demise. They summarized their feelings in few words.

"Bad, sad, mad," offered Thomas Romer, who said he’d lived in Aripeka on and off for years, as he sat on the post office’s steps. He paused. "Pissed."

She checked the petition she’d pinned outside — "Save the Aripeka, Florida Post Office!" — then walked over to the store to check the one she’d put up there.

Only nine signatures between the two.

She knew some people didn’t want to put their names on a petition, but she’d only tacked them on the cluttered bulletin boards a few days earlier. She figured more people would sign. She hoped they just needed more time.

Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.

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