ARIPEKA — Residents outraged over the closing of the post office in the heart of this tight-knit community came away from a meeting with U.S. Postal Service officials last week with hopes it could reopen.
There is no home mail delivery to the Pasco side of coastal Aripeka — which straddles the county line with Hernando — so for decades residents have relied on picking up their mail from free post office boxes at the historic branch.
So when the post office closed on Sept. 13 amid a lease dispute with the property's owner, residents found themselves forced to make a 15-mile round trip to the branch in Hudson to check their boxes. The change put Postal Service officials on the defensive at a heated community meeting Wednesday night.
Dozens filled the Aripeka Community Club with many saying the mostly elderly community of around 300 people has little means to drive a long distance or the capacity to deal with treacherous traffic on U.S. 19 where the Hudson post office sits. Many are mailed medications they will not be able to pick up, putting their health in danger, one woman in the crowd shouted.
"This is outrageous and totally unacceptable," said Jim Smith, a second-generation resident whose family has lived in Aripeka for 48 years.
Postal Service officials held the meeting to get community suggestions on a solution, said spokeswoman Enola Rice.
"We never had any intention of closing the post office in Aripeka," she told the Times prior to the meeting.
Instead, the post office was forced into an "emergency" closing because the property owner refused to renew a lease with the Postal Service and issued an eviction notice to the agency, David Jordan, a USPS operations manager who oversees the Suncoast region, told the crowd. Jordan said the property owner refused to sign due to federally mandated language in the lease that could not be removed.
Discontent swept through the crowd as people made accusations that the Postal Service intended to close the post office and used a lease dispute as a ruse to do so, which Jordan denied. He said the Postal Service is looking for options which could include finding another site in Aripeka to open an office or creating a rural area home delivery route.
One offer from a respected source in the community left the crowd the most hopeful. Local general store owner Carl Norfleet, who is related to the owner of the post office site, Louise Geiger, said he has a deal in place to buy the building from her. He said he would have no objection to the terms of the lease if the post office would work with him. His comments drew a huge round of applause from the audience.
Jordan pledged to work with Norfleet but did not set a time frame to resolve the problem. Norfleet told the Times the Postal Service has paid around $580-a-month in rent for the site. Because of higher insurance costs, he would need to increase rent $50 per month to break even, but Norfleet said he wasn't focused on the bottom line.
"It's not a money-making endeavor for me," he said. "There is a need here and some things transcend money."