ARIPEKA — Residents in this tiny fishing village didn’t complain last year when the U.S. Postal Service announced it would reduce hours in Aripeka, along with four other rural post offices in Pasco County.
But now that the USPS abruptly closed the 92-year-old branch, the residents are working together to find ways to bring mail service back to the community, which straddles the Pasco-Hernando county line.
Residents on the Hernando side of the line get home mail delivery out of Spring Hill. But the post office doesn’t offer home delivery to residents on the Pasco side. So for now, they have to drive 14 miles round-trip on U.S. 19 to the Hudson post office to get their mail. It’s a hardship for residents such as Joaquina Colon, who collected her mail Thursday for the first time since her post office box was moved a week earlier.
“I don’t have a vehicle,” Colon said. “I had to get a ride from my aunt. It’s important for me to get my mail. My boyfriend is getting a heart transplant, and we have a bunch of stuff coming from Tampa General Hospital that we need to see.”
Carl Norfleet said the trip to Hudson along U.S. 19 is more than inconvenient. It’s also treacherous.
“We have a lot of people who don’t drive,” he said. “There are several people who rely on bicycles to get around.”
Driving isn’t much better, resident Karen Smith said. Southbound drivers must make a U-turn on U.S. 19 and cross three lanes of traffic to turn into the post office. The intersection has a higher concentration of traffic fatalities than any other segment of the highway in Pasco County, she said.
The first Aripeka post office opened in 1921. It was built using old boards salvaged from a nearby turpentine factory. “My grandfather built the first post office,” owner Louise Geiger said. It has been in her family since. They built the block building that has housed the post office since 1962. But the 83-year-old Geiger cut off negotiations for the USPS earlier this year when they couldn’t agree on a new five-year lease.
“Everything was going up,” Geiger said. “They expected me to pay for very high insurance (policy). Everything was costing more. I didn’t make hardly a penny last year.”
Enola Rice, spokeswoman for the USPS office in Tampa, said Geiger objected to language in the lease that is standard for all federal real estate contracts. The termination caught the postal service by surprise, she said.
“We did not expect that the lease would not be renewed,” Rice said. “The language she objected to had to do with federal tort claims; it was in her existing lease. It was obvious the landlord did not want to renew. We tried to get a month-to-month extension so we could come up with a better solution for the community, but she refused. So we had to pull everything out of the building by Sept. 13 to comply with the terms.”
Rice said the closer Spring Hill post office didn’t have enough space to accommodate Aripeka’s 180 post office boxes, so they opted for the Hudson branch. “We had to make quick decisions.”
Norfleet, who is Geiger’s cousin, has offered to buy the building and renew the lease negotiations with the USPS. He has lived in Aripeka his entire life and ran the old “Norfleet store” until he retired and turned the business over to his niece.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Norfleet said. “I made a lot of nickles and dimes over the years, so I don’t mind giving some it back to the people of Aripeka.”
Geiger said if Norfleet wants the building, he can have it. “He’s family,” she said. “I can’t tell him no.”
Rice said if he buys the building, the agency’s real estate division would have to negotiate a new lease with him.
Retired postal employee Julie Wert, who lives in Aripeka, has rallied the community to save the post office. “If Carl can not negotiate a lease, they told us they would consider providing us with street delivery,” she said. “That’s important. We can’t be driving to Hudson every day.”