Bainbridge residents like idea to reshuffle downtown

After 35 years downtown, the post office could be moving. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
After 35 years downtown, the post office could be moving.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Islanders at a Tuesday meeting laude a deal that would move the post office, but keep T & C downtown.

Aside from a few concerns, islanders at a public meeting on Tuesday supported a proposal that would move the Winslow Post Office out of downtown to make room for an expanded Town & Country.

United States Postal Service officials confirmed the possibility of a land swap between the postal service and the neighboring grocery store, but said no decision will be made until after a 30-day public comment period that began with Tuesday’s meeting at the Commons.

Under the proposal, T & C would build the post office a new facility at property it owns on High School Road. Moving the post office out of downtown would give the grocery store an additional acre on which to build its planned expansion (see related story below).

Some have speculated that without a viable expansion plan, it would be T & C – not the post office – moving to High School Road.

Most of the 40 or so people at Tuesday’s meeting said they prefer the present option.

“I’m going to choose Town & Country hands down every single day,” Channie Peters said. “It really is the center of the community in more ways than just providing groceries.”

The postal service and T & C have been in informal discussions about a deal for about two years, USPS Spokesman Ken Lieu said. 

Those talks intensified in the fall when the grocery store approached the postal service with the current proposal. A letter of intent has been signed, but no firm deal is in place, Lieu said.

With aid from the city, the USPS organized Tuesday’s public meeting at the Commons. The meeting marked the beginning of a 30-day public comment period.

The postal service will use the input to help make its decision, Lieu said. Once a decision is made, an additional 30-day comment period would open.

The target date for opening the new facility would be spring 2010.

Officials considered other options for the post office, Lieu said. The existing 6,500-square-foot Winslow Post Office was built in 1973 and is the workplace of about 40 postal employees.

Postal officials say an ideal facility would be about 8,000 square feet.

Along with the need for more space, traffic congestion associated with the facility is also an issue, Lieu said.

He said expansion at the current site isn’t feasible, and the postal service doesn’t have enough money to build its own building elsewhere.

The postal service is not a tax-supported entity; instead it relies on revenue drawn from stamp sales and mailing services.

“This would not be paid for by any tax dollars,” Lieu said of the new facility.

Like other businesses, the USPS has suffered due to escalating fuel prices. Every penny rise in fuel prices costs the organization an additional $8 million a year, Lieu said.

He said the land wasn’t put on the open market because the USPS was approached by T & C first, and that the postal service usually goes to abutting property owners first when selling land.

Though most meeting attendees supported the move in theory, there were some concerns about its impacts on postal customers.

Several people said they’re worried about their post office box moving to High School Road.

A contract postal unit opened earlier this year inside Paper Products, Etc., on Winslow Way.

Essentially a mini-post office, the store offers all the post office’s regular services, but doesn’t have post office boxes.

Lieu said the postal service would explore ways to keep post office boxes somewhere downtown.

Others lamented the possible loss of one-stop shopping that now includes the post office.

“(Now) I can do all the errands I do without moving my car,” one woman said.

In general, the USPS doesn’t move postal facilities more than two miles from a downtown, Lieu said.

No postal facilities other than the one in Winslow would be affected by the move.

Developer Bill Nelson, whose company is building the Blossom Hill project near Lynwood Center, said the postal service should consider moving away from a centralized model in favor of multiple smaller facilities in neighborhood service centers.

Postal officials on hand said that’s a good idea in theory, but it isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Winslow Virginia Mason Clinic owner Tom Haggar said keeping T & C downtown is “critical” to the health of the community and the clinic, which also is planning to expand.

Several attendees thanked the postal service for coming despite having no obligation to do so.

“You can do what you want to do – you should do what you want to do,” said John Anderson, of the Christian Science Reading Room on Winslow Way.

“T & C has bent over backwards for so many years to bring things this community needs,”  Anderson said. “We all have personal interests. It would be very convenient for me to have the post office stay where it is. But we have to start thinking of this as a community and not as individuals reacting to whatever is here.”

For T & C, the deal would mean a new beginning at a familiar site.

Of this, Town & Country President Larry Nakata is certain: for now at least, there are more questions than answers about what the grocery store’s long-term future will look like.

But that pertains only to the details.

If a proposed land swap with the post office goes through (see related story above), the most important question will have already been answered – T & C will be staying put for good.

“We as a company wanted to do everything we could to stay downtown,” Nakata said in an extended interview Wednesday.

For the store, which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary, the acquisition of the adjacent post office site would mean enough room for a new or expanded facility at the store’s present location.

For the community, it would mean retaining an anchor business and – according to several attendees at a public meeting Tuesday – the “heart of downtown.”

Of course those aren’t Nakata’s words.

He said the store is grateful to be in Winslow, at the center of a changing community – but a grocery store does not a downtown make.

“It’s not just about T & C,” he said. “It’s about ‘how does a community define a downtown?’ We want to be a part of that.”

The 31,000-square-foot grocery store first opened its doors on Winslow Way in the summer of 1957. The building was first leased, then eventually purchased; to this day, though the company operates six stores in the region, it is the only grocery store building owned by the company.

It has been renovated before, but like any older building, Nakata said, it doesn’t function as well as it once did.

“My feeling right now is that our building is like Winslow Way in a way,” Nakata said. “The infrastructure is failing.”

It’s also too small, which is a why the new and improved T & C, whenever it comes, would have a larger footprint.

How big?

“This would not be a store as large as Central Market,” Nakata said, referring to the company’s 72,000-square-foot store in Poulsbo. “We want to be certain that every time we do a new store we ask ourselves what we’re doing to enhance our shopping experience.”

Though a second Central Market would be welcomed by some, Nakata said each facility has its own unique needs; the company’s smallest store is 19,000 square feet.

Still, though T & C is eager to expand, there is no firm timeline or design in place, and store leaders aren’t sure yet where exactly the footprint would go. Those details will come later, if and when the land swap is finalized.

“It’s a bit of a leap of faith,” Nakata said. “The true answer is that we don’t know yet what we’re going to do. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be challenging. But I’ve always believed that if there’s a will there’s a way.”

T & C and the postal service have been talking informally for several years about their respective facilities’ futures.

Those talks intensified last fall, when T & C approached USPS representatives with an idea: the grocery store would build a new post office on property it owns on High School Road, in exchange for the post office land that would allow them to expand their own facility downtown.

The two sides have signed a letter of intent.

The postal service is now in the midst of its own public process, after which – if both sides agree – there would be a formal agreement, likely to come in late summer or early fall, at the earliest, Nakata said.

The new post office would be targeted for a spring 2010 opening. T & C by then would have a firmer plan in place and could begin work on its remodel or a new building.

The store would remain open throughout construction, Nakata said.

“Sub-level” parking will be looked at as an option for the new store, though its aim will be to serve the store’s customers, not overflow parking.

“What the community does to address the parking needs downtown is not our decision,” he said. “We just have to believe that at some point in time the right decision will be made for the long term.”

Whatever the new T & C ultimately looks like, it will be “green,” Nakata said.

“Environmental stewardship is a core value of our community and this gives us an opportunity to work toward that value,” he said.

Nakata said the factors behind the plan on the table go “beyond cost.” The focus now is on moving ahead with a plan that would keep T & C at the core of a buzzing downtown – whatever that downtown’s future holds.

“A whole lot of work has been done by a whole lot of people in the last decade or two,” Nakata said. “It certainly helped us get to know our neighbors, and in the grand scheme of things that’s a good thing.

“There will be exciting times ahead – we’ll see what happens.”

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