By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
KEO — Residents were elated when they got word in mid-June that more than three dozen local buildings, including a pair of long-closed gins in this once thriving cotton community on the edge of the Delta, were being added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“This city has such a rich farming history,” Mayor Nancy Cobb Tardy said, adding that city officials began planning walking tours and other programs centered in the historic district during Keo Fall Days beginning Oct. 1 to attract tourists to the Lonoke County community of about 260, located about 25 miles east of Little Rock.
Then the other shoe dropped.
A few weeks after being added to the national historic register, the town got word that its post office was on a list with thousands of endangered postal facilities nationally.
The financially troubled U.S. Postal Service announced in July that it will study 3,653 local post offices and branches across the country for possible closure. The list includes 179 locations in Arkansas, or about 30 percent of the 589 postal facilities in the state.
Residents in Keo and other small towns pledged to fight to keep their post office. Losing them, they said, would hurt their already struggling communities and cause many of them to wither and die.
Leisa Tolliver-Gay, head of community relations for the U.S. Postal Service in Arkansas, said postal officials in the state have begun assessing those facilities on the closure list and no timetable has been set for the studies or for deciding which facilities will be shuttered.
Public hearings began in several communities across the state to gather local input, she said.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to voice their concerns, and then we’ll collect surveys if they haven’t been mailed back in,” she said,
Tolliver-Gay said officials are considering a variety of factors, including the volume of mail each post office handles, the cost to operate the office, the number of residents they serve and how local residents would be affected if their office is closed.
“Just because they are on the list does not mean they will be closed,” she said. “That means that we will study them for closure.”
Last week, public meetings were held in the Alix township in Franklin County and the Gregory township in Woodruff County — both communities of fewer than 500 residents.
Public meetings are scheduled for Tuesday in the Alleene community in Little River County and Menifee in Conway County.
On Wednesday, a public meeting is scheduled in the small community of Beirne in Clark County, and postal service officials will meet with local residents in the Jerusalem in Conway County Thursday.
Menifee Mayor Lee Smith said last week he expects a big crowd for Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. public meeting at town hall in the community of about 250, located about five miles from Conway.
“Most definitely (closing the post office) will hurt us,” Smith said . “I hope everyone will come out and voice their opinion on what should happen.”
James Burns, chairman of the board of Scotland Community Corporation, said petitions are being circulated for residents to sign if they want to keep the post office open in the tiny Van Buren County community.
Many of the town’s 72 residents are elderly, and some no longer drive, the mayor said.
“It’s where they go to get stamps, check their mail boxes or mail something to their grandchildren for Christmas. It really would have a bad, bad effect on this community,” Burns said. “For the foreseeable future, I don’t see our little old town growing now on account of the world economy, really, but we’re hanging on and doing the very best we can.”
No meeting has been scheduled for Keo.
Local residents frequenting the small postal station off Main Street last week shook their heads and used words like “devastating” and “awful” to describe the prospect of losing the facility.
“It would mean a whole of extra miles that we would have to drive to get our mail,” said Jerry Morton, a city council member who runs a small welding service in town. “This is a very important part of our community.”
If the post office closes, residents will have to drive five miles to England or eight miles to Scott to pick up their mail, said Mayor Tardy.
A petition to save the post office is available for residents to sign in Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets, a popular local diner that has been featured three times in Southern Living magazine.
Owner Charlotte Bowles describes the town as “a pretty tight, closely knit community.”
“We have a lot of elderly people and a lot of them don’t drive, but they can walk to the post office,” Bowles said, adding that sometimes the post master, Mary Williams, brings people their mail if they are sick and can’t make it to the post office.
The community has no formal home mail delivery service.
“Everybody tries to take care of the other person and the post master here does a lot as far as helping the citizens of Keo,” she said.
Tony Ingle, who runs the town’s water treatment plant, said many residents depend on the convenience of the local post office for more than just mail.
“For a lot of people, the only exercise they get is their walk to and from the post office,” he said.
Along with the petition, Tardy said residents who have not rented a mail box at the post office are being urged to do so. As of last week, 132 of the 157 homes in the Keo zip code had reserved boxes, the mayor said.
“We just have to keep our destination,” Tardy said. “Everyone in town knows about it, they’ve talked and they’re just devastated. I’m hoping against hope that we’ll have good news eventually.”