Waughtown residents distressed by proposed post office closure

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem City Councilman James Taylor said the potential closing of the Waughtown Station Post Office could deal a serious blow to the Southeast Ward’s economy. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Barbara Bennett has lived here in Winston-Salem’s Southeast Ward for 36 years. Bennett, 66, said she’s witnessed the Easton neighborhood in good times and in bad. Despite the current economy, she believes things are on the upswing in the Southeast Ward.

“There’s been a lot of change in the neighborhood — there’s more businesses,” Bennett said. “If you’ve got businesses, you need a post office. King’s Plaza Shopping Center has reopened and the businesses there are thriving.”

Bennett said the Southeast Ward’s economic renewal is one reason she’s opposed to the proposed closing of the Waughtown Station Post Office.

Bennett said there are many elderly and disabled residents that use the neighborhood post office, so closing it would pose a significant hardship.

“I have a post office box and I go there to get stamps and mail things off,” Bennett said. “I use the post office and that’s the closest post office to us, rather than having to go five miles. It would be very inconvenient for us. I’m a senior citizen and that would be very hard. They should consider how the closing of a post office would affect the entire community.”

Last, Bennett and her neighbors in the Southeast Ward received the news that the Waughtown Station Post Office could be closed due to “declining office workload, which may indicate that maintaining this facility is not warranted,” according to a letter from the US Postal Service.

Waughtown Station is one of 20 post offices in North Carolina currently undergoing a feasibility study “to evaluate the facility’s operations in a continuing effort to meet customers’ retail needs, improve productivity, increase efficiency and cut costs,” according to the letter. Two months ago, the US Postal Service announced it was looking at the possibility of closing 3,700 post offices nationwide. Postal representatives held a one-hour community meeting earlier this month, but turnout was low, said Vanessa D. Smith, community assistance liaison for the city of Winston-Salem.

“At the end of the meeting last Friday [Sept. 9], it was a decision made by [Winston-Salem City] Council member [James] Taylor and Rep. [Larry] Womble to have a bigger community meeting on a bigger scale as quickly as possible to keep the momentum going,” Smith said.

A meeting was scheduled for Tuesday at Forest Park Elementary School.

“The word needs to get out,” Smith said. “When we were passing the flyers out, people were not aware. I’ve had a great response — neighborhood groups in the area were provided extra flyers to pass out to their neighbors and we’ve been encouraging them to spread the word.”

In addition to Taylor and Womble, representatives from US Rep. Mel Watt and US Sen. Kay Hagan’s offices were expected to attend Tuesday’s public meeting.

Robert Leak III, president of Easton Neighborhood Association, said he was unaware the post office was being studied for possible closure until someone called him. Leak is helping spearhead the community effort to save the Waughtown Station Post Office. Leak said the Waughtown Station has offered a crucial service for elderly, disabled and poor residents who don’t have access to reliable transportation. The nearest post office for Southeast Ward residents is more than five miles away.

“It’s going to have a tremendous impact on the Southeast Ward,” Leak said. “There’s so much diversity in this area — Latinos, African Americans, Caucasians — you’re meeting your neighbors there, seeing your friends there. We all still look out for each other, stand up for our cause and fight for something that’s important to us.”

Taylor said the community effort currently being mobilized to oppose the closing of Waughtown Station is about much more than convenience — it’s about economic survival.

“As you see at King Plaza and [the Waughtown Street corridor], we are investing a total of $3.3 million with over $1 million coming from the city of Winston- Salem,” Taylor said. “We have Caterpillar investing 500 jobs in the community and we are working diligently to fill the Dell building. Things are on the come up and I think this post office is going to be very instrumental in that happening.”

Taylor said the city’s Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas, or RUCA program has invested $1.3 million in the neighborhood surrounding the Waughton Station and private investments have totaled more than $2 million.

“We have the makings of a great story here in the Southeast Ward,” Taylor said.

However, closing Waughtown Station Post Office could deal a major blow to economic development efforts in the community.

“We’ve taken some steps forward, and we don’t want to take any steps backwards,” Taylor said. “This is a major hub that has a lot of economic value in the community and in the Southeast Ward at large. If you don’t have a post office, how do you send mail? How do you recruit small businesses? How do you continue to keep jobs?” “This is a major catalyst for what we’re trying to do in the Southeast Ward,” he continued. “It’s important that this post office stay open.”

Taylor said there’s a good possibility the retail side of the post office will be closed and the outer lobby that houses the post office boxes would remain open to the public.

Smith said the people of the Southeast Ward are fired up about the possibility of losing another vital service in their community.

“Their voices are what counts,” Smith said. “They want change and they want it sooner than later and they are frustrated because things don’t happen as fast as they want it to for quality of life [issues] in the neighborhood.”

Leak said the residents of Easton neighborhood have witnessed the loss of services, small businesses and amenities over the years, but this time, they are organizing to make a stand.

“It seems like in our area something is always taken away,” he continued. “This is an opportunity for us to stand up and fight for a service and amenity in our neighborhood. At the end of the day, I will feel good that we all pushed for this, but it’s not our decision.”

Smith expected hundreds of residents to turn up at Tuesday’s meeting where they were to be handed petitions protesting the closing of Waughtown Station.

If Waughtown Station’s operations cease, it would leave a single post office east of US 52 — the campus post office at Winston-Salem State University, Taylor said.

“It’s inaccessible, there’s no parking and I’m sure the chancellor may not want the whole Southeast Ward public going to Winston-Salem State to do mail transactions,” he said.

As Taylor stood inside the Waughtown Station Post Office on the afternoon of Sept. 16, a steady stream of postal customers flowed in and out, mailing letters and checking post office boxes. Taylor said he’s aware of the larger cuts nationwide but an empty post office building would be detrimental to the Southeast Ward’s economic recovery.

“This is the most multicultural ward in the entire city,” Taylor said. “You have blacks, whites, Hispanics — this is a melting pot. Everybody can get involved.”

“This is a bipartisan issue; it’s a multicultural issue,” he continued. “It’s important to Democrats and Republicans alike, and everybody has mail.”

More importantly, the issue of Waughtown Station possibly being shuttered has galvanized the residents of the Southeast Ward, which has already created an environment of activism.

“We want residents to know that you don’t have to sit back with your hands tied and accept the way the cuts are coming down,” Taylor said. “If that should happen, fine, but we’re going to go out swinging and we might hit a homerun.”

Leak said the world hasn’t changed, but people have. He said the only way to prevent this unwanted change is for the citizens of the neighborhood to unite and take their concerns to their elected officials.

“It’s sad that something has to happen for people to come together,” Leak said. “People should come together every day to bring change in their community, their ward and the city as a whole.”