BALM — The fate of the tiny Balm post office drew a crowd so large that officials had to hold a meeting around the parking lot flagpole to discuss the possibility of closing it down.
About 60 residents of this rural community turned out Wednesday morning to voice their opposition. Some tried impassioned pleas, while others said better cost-saving methods are available. The closest alternative is Wimauma, more than 5 miles away, and some predicted closure would adversely affect businesses and harm disabled people and migrant workers who have no transportation.
Glenda O'Brien of Balm said the post office is a historic landmark that carries on traditions of community camaraderie that date to a bygone era.
"You hug people here," she said. "We don't have this anymore. This is all we have of that world."
"This is the core of the community; this is the identity of Balm," said Gerald Davis, who noted he was born on the other side of Balm Road from the post office. "I think that should be considered."
Gary Sawtelle, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service's Tampa district, said the facility dates to 1902. It is among 2,000 branches nationwide being eyed for closure as more people turn to Internet services and postal revenues plummet.
"The post office this year will run out of money in October," he said. "We won't be able to make payroll."
Consolidating postal services is just one option, said Leroy Middleton, Tampa operations manager for the Postal Service. About 7,500 management positions are being eliminated, he said.
A decision is expected to be made in late July. If officials target Balm for closure, the building would close no earlier than October, Sawtelle said. It is the only station being considered for closure in Hillsborough County.
Among those who turned out to protest was Elizabeth "Pooka" Sweat, 91, who served as postmaster from 1948 to 1981. She said the possible closing made her sad.
Sawtelle said after the meeting that conservative estimates indicate that closing the Balm station would save about $650,000 over 10 years. He and other officials promised to consider crowd suggestions that included cutting back window service hours.
He declined to say specifically what landed Balm on the list of potential closings, but he said officials generally look at revenues, expenses and proximity to other post office facilities. The branch offers 420 rental boxes — no delivery — with 264 boxes leased to customers.
The Balm branch employs a postmaster and relief employee on Saturdays, Sawtelle said. Barb Fiske of Balm said she also would lose her job cleaning the office if it closes.
If the Balm office closes, residents could transfer their boxes to Wimauma, retaining the same address, or opt for street delivery from Wimauma or Riverview, postal representatives said. Glen Fiske, vice president of the Balm Civic Association, said he does not want to run the risk of stolen mail by using a box on the street.
Danny Dixon of Balm said he drove from the Balm post office to the Wimauma and Riverview facilities that offer the closest alternatives and figured daily trips to either branch would add more than 3,000 miles to his odometer each year.
"That's two round trips to Evansville, Ind., in a year's time," he told officials.
He questioned whether the costs of adding Balm post office box customers to rural route delivery would exceed projected savings, noting that he has a relative who carries mail on a rural route who uses $75 worth of gas a day and has to have brake repair every two or three months.
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at email@example.com.