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Shop owners fight closure of postal unit

Wayne and Cindy Mandat wanted a small business, decent working hours and something close to home.

So four years ago, they took over the Brooker Creek contract postal unit at 2467 Sandy Point Road. East Lake residents had been going to the shop for postal services for more than 20 years, and the Mandats ran it in conjunction with a card shop.

"The hours were 9 to 5, 9 to noon on Saturdays, 3 miles from our house," said Wayne Mandat, 58, who owns Fanfare Cards & Gifts. "We were never going to get rich, but we both enjoyed it."

Now everything is up in the air, says Mandat. Postal inspectors closed the contract postal unit on May 27. They took all of his stamps and postage meter and removed the blue mailbox that sat out front.

The Mandats said they want to appeal the decision. In a June 3 letter to postal officials, they wrote, "we are asking for an explanation as to how this happened. The local postal people would not take the time to sit down with us and explain the situation." They also attached a petition of more than 1,200 residents who would like to see the postal satellite reopen.

Without the mail-related business, they say, the card shop cannot make it.

But there are no appeals in this case, said Bridget Robertson, customer relations manager for Tampa's post office system. The post office has already chosen to terminate the contract with the Mandats, effective Aug. 15. The Mandats are being paid until then.

"That is a loss for us," Robertson said. "We're paying him for services we're not getting. He really has no appeal rights. If he no longer wanted to operate as CPU (contract postal unit), we would have no appeal rights even if it was a CPU we wanted to keep open."

The Postal Service's contract postal units are small, privately run satellite operations that offer stamps, certified mail and overnight shipping. The government allows businesses to become contract postal units to alleviate traffic at its post offices.

Postal officials say Mandat did not comply with certain contractual obligations, including being open 8:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. on Saturdays and upgrading his postage meter.

Mandat admits to closing on Saturdays in the summertime, but he said business is slow because the snowbirds are up North. He said he has a lease with Pitney Bowes for a meter and mailing equipment that doesn't expire until Sept. 30, 2005. Pitney Bowes would not exchange the meter and he would not sign a new lease, he said.

"I'm not arguing the fact about Saturdays," Mandat said. "I would have stayed open on Saturdays. That was not a big issue other than that it was so slow this time of year."

While another substation has since opened at the Mobile on the Run Gas Station on Ridgemoor, East Lake resident David Hayth said he was disappointed to see the post office close. He has been frequenting the post office for several years.

"Considering the alternatives of where you have to go it's convenient to just have one down the road," said Hayth, who lives in Woodfield. "East Lake is made up of small businesses. I hate to see a small business go out of business."

Fanfare Cards & Gifts is still open but the store only sells cards and gifts. The revenue from those sales isn't enough to sustain the business, Mandat said. He said most of the people who buy cards are senior citizens, and they are up North now.

Mandat said he has sent letters and the petition to several postal officials but has yet to receive a response.

"In a normal appeal process, I would think someone would come and talk to you about it," Mandat said. "I live in the real world where when you appeal something you have a person come in and you try to talk it through and work it out."

But that more than likely won't happen in this case, said Robertson. She said officials are done doing business with the Brooker Creek contract postal unit. The next business owners will have to sign a new contract. Robertson said the post office could have terminated the contract with a one-day notice but chose to give the couple 60 days.

Meanwhile, Mandat said he's frustrated with the lack of communication. It's been more than a month since he sent letters to postal officials. Mandat said he would make a decision in the next couple of weeks about what to do.

"We might just lock the whole thing up," Mandat said. "I called Fed-Ex and other companies, but I'm not quite sure if we're going to stay open or be forced to give up the lease and close down. Everything is just up in the air. I really don't know."

_ Megan Scott can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or mscottsptimes.com.

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