Though reluctant to dabble in the U.S. Postal Service's business, Clearwater City Council members Thursday took the first tentative steps toward formulating a strategy to oppose the potential closing of the historic downtown post office. Their outside-the-box thinking, combined with lobbying by residents, could be what someday saves that unique and beautiful building for posterity.
The post office on Cleveland Street downtown was built in 1933, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a treasured local landmark. Council members were shocked to learn from a St. Petersburg Times story last week that the downtown post office is on a list of 1,000 postal facilities that could be closed later this year as the Postal Service struggles to free itself of the albatross of a projected $7 billion loss.
Two more Clearwater post offices also are on the list of potential closures: the Clearwater Beach branch and the Countryside branch.
City Council members hope none of the post offices in Clearwater will close; they said that all of the branches are busy and frequently have long lines. But they properly focused their attention on the potential loss of the historic downtown building, which is owned by the Postal Service.
Council member Carlen Petersen was the first to raise the issue at the end of last week's council meeting, saying she was "blown away" by the news of three potential closings in Clearwater. "We need to do something about that," she said, if only to "complain bitterly" about the possibility of Clearwater losing so many facilities. She said she was particularly concerned about the downtown post office because of its historical significance.
Mayor Frank Hibbard was clearly uncomfortable about charging into a pitched battle with the Postal Service to try to keep all the branches open.
"We don't know their operations the way they know their operations, and it feels disingenuous when we are making cuts as well," he said. "My concern is making sure that the downtown post office doesn't fall into the hands of developers. That would be a tremendous loss."
It is incorrect, Hibbard pointed out, to assume that being on the National Register protects historic structures. The register listing gives recognition to properties that deserve preservation, but private owners of listed properties can do anything they want with them, including tearing them down or inappropriately modifying them.
The best protection, Hibbard said, would be afforded by the Postal Service turning over the building to a public entity, such as the city of Clearwater, that could use it or lease it out for appropriate uses.
"It would make a wonderful restaurant," he said.
Council member John Doran had some other ideas. It would be a good location for a health clinic, he said, because it is in a visible, accessible location. He also mentioned that the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce is looking for a home.
Council member George Cretekos, who worked in Washington for years for U.S. Rep. Bill Young, said he believes the Postal Service might be required to offer the building first to other federal agencies, and if none are interested, perhaps to state agencies and so on. If that is true, a lot of government departments would get a turn at bat before the building were offered to the city government.
Hibbard suggested the city needs to have a plan. He's right, but the city may not have much time. The Postal Service has indicated that closures of selected facilities could begin as early as October.
City officials need to find out what federal law and policy would require the Postal Service to do with a building it no longer wants, and then call on the local congressional delegation to help the city relay its concerns about the downtown post office to postal authorities.