WINTHROP — Six months after a fire destroyed the downtown post office, the United State Postal Service has announced plans to build a replacement facility by fall of 2018, and while that may be welcome news to many, some have expressed frustration that the building’s burned-out remains still haven’t been razed.

“Most people are talking about it,” said Jeff Hinds, the owner of Sully’s Restaurant and Tavern, which is next door to the post office. “It’s kind of an eyesore, and it’s a hazard area. … My feeling is, if it was my building, I would have been forced to tear it down a couple weeks after it burned.”

A fence now surrounds the downtown facility, but Hinds said he’s seen children get through the barrier, and other people dump their garbage over the fence into a dumpster located there.

A newspaper vending box located just outside the post office still contains issues of the Kennebec Journal that came out on Feb. 21, the day of the fire.

And as of late last week, yellow caution tape was hung across the steps up to the post office, debris could be seen inside the brick building, and tall grass had grown outside it.

“It looks like a war zone,” said Barbara Walsh, executive director of the Winthrop Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, who suggested the unsightliness could dissuade people from visiting downtown.

The fire was first reported early on the morning of Feb. 21, when postal workers noticed smoke coming out of a ceiling tile. Flames soon swept through the facility at 112 Main St., gutting its interior and causing a section of its metal roof to collapse.

Over the next week, federal investigators determined that the fire was an accident caused by an electrical or mechanical malfunction, though they couldn’t pinpoint which, and inspectors from the postal service worked to recover burned mail from the site.

The postal service announced that it would eventually tear down the building, after constructing it seven years earlier, but didn’t offer a clear assurance when or whether they would replace it.

Earlier this month, though, a spokesman for the postal service, Steve Doherty, said the facility will be rebuilt by fall of next year. But a timeline for the work hasn’t been established, including when the existing building will be torn down.

“Once they complete the design phase and award the contract, (demolition) would be step 1,” Doherty said. “Whether it will look like the old one, I don’t know. They’re planning on using the existing foundation, apparently. Whoever is going to be doing the rebuild, my assumption is doing the remainder of the demolition.”

Doherty couldn’t offer a clearer timeline, he added, because the length of a project can be hard to determine until construction has actually begun.

“We’ll have firmer figures as the time gets closer,” he said.

Responses to that news were mixed around town. Town Manager Ryan Frost said that many residents are hoping for a change in the appearance of the downtown burn site sooner than a year from now.

“We know the community has wanted the site cleaned up,” Frost said. “That would be really, really nice to have it cleaned up, and if that could happen sooner than later, that would be great. It would be super if they could mitigate the problems now and just get that site cleaned up, or at least get the burned debris out.”

On Friday, upon learning from a reporter that the grass had grown high outside the post office, Doherty contacted an operations manager for the U.S. Postal Service. In a subsequent phone call, Doherty said that workers would be tidying up the vegetation in the next several days.

But Doherty also warned that some debris might not be removed until a contractor begins the demolition.

Since early spring, residents have been able to obtain retail mailing services at a mobile unit parked near 112 Main St., a measure that will continue until the new facility is built, Doherty said. Before that mobile unit was brought to Winthrop, customers who had post-office boxes in the burned out facility had to receive their mail in Manchester.

But the stopgap measure hasn’t resolved all the problems that came with the Feb. 21 fire, and a new post office might not totally resolve the situation either, said Brian Condon, an attorney with an office in downtown Winthrop.

Condon relies on the postal service to send deeds and other documents, but he said for a number of years, some of his parcels have been lost in transit. Since February, he thinks it’s been happening more frequently.

“We lose 10 percent of our mail,” he said. “Before the fire, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. There’s been an uptick.”

The problem, Condon thinks, isn’t with the local post office or workers — whom he praised. Rather, he thinks the U.S. Postal Service has been transporting mail via increasingly complicated routes, in which mail is sorted far away from its destination, and that the Winthrop fire disrupted the chain even further.

“Not having a local sort facility is a problem,” Condon said.

Regardless of the gradual changes in the quality of the postal service, many residents and business owners have still been firm in their support for replacing the local post office quickly, both for the improvements it could bring to the mail-flow and the community that can be fostered by a brick-and-mortar space.

Another downtown business owner, Cindy Gervais, operates Vintage Collectibles out of the property that housed the local post office before it was relocated to 112 Main St.

Told of the postal service’s plan to rebuild the facility by fall 2018, she called it “very encouraging, because the post office brings people downtown. This town has always had a post office, so to not have one is just an inconvenience.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: