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Special delivery: Embarrass to get town hub back with return of post office

Scott Lee, superintendent for Morcon Construction of Fridley, Minn., builds a deck on the new Embarrass Post Office. Embarrass has been without a post office since January 2015. The new location is expected to open after Christmas. Janna Goerdt / For the News Tribune1 / 4
A former hunting shack is moved to Embarrass to become the community's post office. Jennifer Boese photo2 / 4
Workers convert a former hunting shack into the new Embarrass Post Office. Janna Goerdt / For the News Tribune3 / 4
A former hunting shack is moved to Embarrass to become the community's post office. Jennifer Boese photo4 / 4

EMBARRASS — There will be space to linger, catch up with friends and neighbors, and talk about the weather with the postmaster.

Oh, and probably buy a few stamps, too.

A new post office, expected to open sometime after Christmas, will restore a community service to Embarrass. The small community hub is home to a greenhouse, a credit union, a convenience store and a cluster of people used to dealing with bone-chilling winter temperatures.

"It will be very helpful to many people who had to drive to Tower to mail something," said Jennifer Boese, the Embarrass town clerk. The old post office, a one-room building, was shuttered in January 2015 because of structural problems. Once that happened, most Embarrass residents had to drive to Tower, Aurora, Babbitt or Virginia to find a post office.

And what's more, they lost a community gathering spot. Most of the people who stopped at the one-room post office would "get their mail, and then BS a while," said Paul Thesenvitz, who was the postmaster at the one-room post office for 21 years. "You don't have that luxury at the big offices," said Thesenvitz, who had previously worked at the large mail processing center in Duluth.

"A post office is the heartbeat of the community," said rural mail carrier Don Elj. "A lot of people gather there. And this post office is going to be a very welcoming place."

It took years of lobbying and planning to bring the post office back to town.

The Embarrass Town Board spent more than $58,000 to buy the property, building and heating system for the new post office location. Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation contributed an additional $47,800 toward the project, with the U.S. Postal Service paying for on-site construction and remodeling of the 800-square-foot building.

The new post office — which was once intended to be a hunting shack — will feature a 24-hour lobby and post office boxes, as well as a part-time service window. A wide veranda on the front of the building will be a place to linger, said Todd Saterbak, a project manager for the Adkins Association Inc., an architectural firm in St. Paul.

"Not every post office gets a porch," Saterbak said. The company does design work for the USPS. Saterbak has reworked everything from old fast-food restaurants to township fire halls into new post offices, and he said the USPS is a good tenant. In the case of the Embarrass post office, as in many current post office remodels, the local community buys or puts up the building, and the USPS leases it.

"Once the post office moves in, they never move out," Saterbak said.

But they do sometimes close.

The USPS is in the midst of a financial crisis, brought about by years of dwindling mail volume. According to a USPS report issued in February, "Overall, the Postal Service continues to operate within an unsustainable business model because of mandated costs such as an unaffordable retiree health benefits program that is not fully integrated with Medicare, and an ineffective pricing system."

That has translated, for example, to a net loss of $200 million in the first quarter of the 2017 fiscal year, according to the report. In previous years, the USPS has proposed closing hundreds of post office locations across the country.

The new building in Embarrass was moved into place in November, and contractors quickly began to remodel the structure, installing P.O. boxes and other post office features — including that wide front porch.

The move will change Elj's life "back to wonderful," he said. Elj has worked as a rural postal carrier for more than a decade, and currently drives a six-hour route in the Embarrass area. When the new post office opens, he will no longer have to drive to Tower and back before beginning his route.

Elj worked for a few years out of the old Embarrass Post Office, which was a small, cramped space, alternately hot in the summer and cold in the winter, he said.

"I didn't think it would reopen," Elj said. "It was such a small office, and I really didn't think the Postal Service would do anything about it. But the community voiced their opinion enough times" to urge them to reopen the office.

"All potential projects receive a planning and financial review and are subject to approval at the district, area and headquarters level," said Peter Nowacki, a spokesperson for the USPS, in a statement about the Embarrass project. Nowacki said the USPS had an "increased" budget from 2016 to 2017 for updating and improving facilities, though he could not release specific numbers about the Embarrass Post Office.

"While times change and people's methods of communications have evolved, we still provide an essential communications link that connects friends and family and drives commerce," Nowacki said.

And in Embarrass, that link now comes with a veranda.