FLAG POND — Just down the road from the Flag Pond Post Office sits the empty building that was once Rice’s Store.
Across from the post office is the now-closed Flag Pond School which, while still used for community functions, hasn’t seen a student step through its doors in some time.
Over the past couple of decades, the Flag Pond area has seen several stores close, the Morrill electric motor facility and a community restaurant cease operations there, and the relocation of a medical office once situated in the community.
While the Flag Pond Post Office now stands alone as virtually the last operating business in the small unincorporated community, it has plenty of company on a list released earlier this week by the U.S. Postal Service of around 3,700 nationwide post offices that are under review for closure.
“We need it,” Flag Pond resident Teresa Metcalf said of the Flag Pond Post Office. “They’ve took everything we’ve got.”
While the closure of the Flag Pond Post Office is not foregone conclusion, Beth Barnett, spokesperson for the Tennessee District of the USPS, said the cessation of its operations and others throughout the country must be studied due to financial issues facing the USPS.
“It does not necessarily mean that it will close, it’s just that it’s one that we will study and see what our findings are as to whether or not we’ll close it,” Barnett said.
Barnett said the USPS lost $8.5 billion last year and that over the past five years, the service has seen its mail volume decreases by around 43 billion.
The number of customers actually going into post offices has also significantly decreased, Barnett said. This, she said, can be attributed to people using the internet for sending letters and paying bills, as well as having additional third-party options to purchase post office items, such as buying stamps at a grocery store.
These changes in customer habits have made the examination of the needs of some post offices more realistic.
“We’re just doing what any other business would do,” Barnett said. “We’re looking at the potential of rightsizing our retail network by taking a look at some of the offices we might be potentially able to close.”
On top of this, the USPS also bears a significant annual expense. Although the USPS does not receive tax dollars, it has been Congressionally mandated to pay $5 billion per year since 2006, Barnett said. This money goes into an account that pre-funds the health benefits of future USPS retirees.
“If we didn’t have that $5 billion to pay, we would not be in the serious financial situation we’re in right now,” Barnett said.
Earlier this week, the USPS also released information regarding the possibility of instituting “village post offices,” a post office replacement option in which businesses near closed offices would offer the USPS’s most popular products and services.
However, lifelong Flag Pond resident and current Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas said possible village post office locations in the Flag Pond area are practically non-existent.
“Flag Pond was a thriving community several years back and, just in the past 15 years, we have lost everything we have,” Thomas said.
Both Thomas and Metcalf agree that having a post office in Flag Pond is convenient for its citizens. Without it, Thomas said it would mean a more than 20-minute drive for residents living in the extreme south end of the county to get to the Erwin Post Office. Metcalf said the post office is convenient for Flag Pond’s elderly citizens and those in the community who have PO Boxes at the location.
“I’d hate to see us go dry,” Metcalf said. “That’s the only thing we’ve got left running up there.”
Thomas said the possibility that the location could remain open when all is said and done is good news.
“I’ll certainly do my part to try to find out if there’s the possibility of keeping it open, and I’ll try to make my opinion known that we need to keep it open,” he said.
Barnett said no post offices on the list released earlier this week by the USPS would be closed before December of this year.