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Customers wait their turn in line, many for up to an hour, in the Crested Butte Post Office on Dec. 31, 2018. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE —  The newest winter endurance activity in this recreation-minded town hasn’t involved skis or fat bikes. It has involved patience — more patience than some can muster — while waiting for service at the local post office.

Over the Christmas holidays and still stretching into this new year, Crested Buttians have had to endure standing in line for up to two hours to pick up or send parcels. For some, that meant Christmas presents never made it under the tree; they remained stacked in the back room of an overworked and understaffed post office or had been “returned to sender” as the holiday came and went.

While the entire U.S. Postal Service struggles to keep up with budget deficits, workforce shortages, a falling interest in snail mail and a huge increase in online shopping, this historic mining town has felt that nationwide pain like a giant, localized headache. It put a damper on the Christmas holiday.

The popularity of Amazon shopping, in particular, has contributed to the bottleneck. Scads of Amazon boxes are dumped at the post office for “last-mile delivery” under a contract agreement between Amazon and the Postal Service. In the case of Crested Butte, “last-mile delivery” actually means postal patron pickup.

There is no home-mail delivery in this town of 1,600 full-time residents. They pick up their mail at post office boxes. Yellow slips in those boxes indicate they have packages. The only way to retrieve those packages is to take the slips to the service counter.

Thus, the lines.

Some have taken the inconvenience in stride, arriving at the cramped post office ready to spend a sizable chunk of the day hanging out with the aid of hot coffee, energy snacks, crossword puzzles and novels. Strangers have shared jokes. Grumbles have rumbled up and down a queue that often snaked into a long hallway and at times spilled out onto Elk Avenue.

High-five celebrations have broken out when the lucky ones made it to the post office window and left triumphantly clutching packages. Sympathetic, collective groans have arisen for those who made it to the window only to hear that their packages can’t be found. And curses have erupted from more than a few who stuck their heads in the door, took the measure of the line and stomped off into the snow.

“I don’t know all the woes yet of Crested Butte. I just moved here a year and a half ago. But I’m expecting that this is going to be the worst one,” said barista Sydney Pracht, one of many who, resignedly, stood in line days after Christmas in an extended effort to mail or receive packages.

Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt also counted himself among the disappointed.

“This has spiraled out of control,” said Schmidt, who suffered through the line on several occasions to try to retrieve a Christmas package that couldn’t be found. “It’s just been a very frustrating year for mail — worse than it’s ever been before.”

Katherine Nettles walks out of the Crested Butte Post Office with Christmas packages delivered on December 31st, 2018. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Amazon a necessary evil for hard-to-get essentials

The great Crested Butte holiday mail breakdown of 2018 has not only put a local magnifier on the Postal Service’s national struggles. It has tested the mettle even of the hardy souls who have chosen to live in an end-of-the-pavement town where inconveniences — including no home-mail delivery — are a part of life.

Here, online shopping through outlets such as Amazon can be a necessity because many essential goods aren’t available locally. Crested Butte’s small specialty shops have artwork and outdoor clothing galore; the single hardware store and two limited grocery stores cram in what supplies they can; and local buy-swap-and-sell online platforms fill a lot of needs.

But the nearest big-box store sits in Gunnison, 28 miles down the road.

Online shopping helped stoke a 12 percent increase in parcels handled at the Crested Butte Post Office over the recent holiday season.

Crested Butte Town Administrator Dara MacDonald recognized the growing problem more than a year ago and emailed Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him for relief. Bezos didn’t personally answer, but correspondence has continued with his underlings.

In emails, Amazon representatives promised to “deprioritize” Crested Butte so that the post office would no longer be the primary point of delivery for packages; more could go directly to homes.

“We think that should alleviate the issue,” wrote an Amazon customer relations executive — a year ago.

The problem did ease — for a while. But MacDonald was soon sending new entreaties to Amazon noting that the problem had recurred — and worsened. That executive noted two weeks before Christmas that she was still researching the issue. A week after Christmas, an email reported the executive was out of the office but Amazon wanted to assure MacDonald that the company was “still working on your issue.”

MacDonald, who suffered through her turns in line over the holiday, said the town can’t do much more to solve the problem even though residents have grown increasingly restive over the issue.

Linda Neill, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service in Colorado, said via email that she couldn’t comment on the Postal Service/Amazon “last-mile delivery” contract.

The post office in Gunnison County town of Pitkin. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Huge jump in delayed pieces of mail in Colorado last year

Last year, the Postal Service delivered across the nation a record-breaking 900 million packages — the majority of which were Amazon purchases. Package volume has grown about 10 percent annually in Colorado over the past five years. Towering stacks of Amazon boxes in the backroom of the Crested Butte Post Office and armloads of packages pouring out the doors bearing the distinctive Amazon teal-and-black packing tape seemed to confirm the deluge.

In Colorado, from October 2017 through last June, there were 106 million pieces of mail delayed — 57 million more than in fiscal year 2017 (October 2016 to September 2017). Neil said she cannot release delayed-mail numbers for individual post offices, so Crested Butte residents can only guess at how much of that delayed mail was sitting on shelves in Crested Butte. Some languishing in the lines said it has felt like more mail was delayed than delivered.  

The post office at Buffalo Creek, Colorado is located in the Green Mercantile building, constructed out of native granite in 1898 by J.W. Green after the original wood building burned down in 1897. Green was appointed postmaster in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland. His family still runs the mercantile. The Post Office serves the tiny community of Buffalo Creek — population 244 –located about 50 miles southwest of Denver. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tight job market, drug tests make help hard to find

The criticism here hasn’t been directed at the town’s postal workers. Locals laud them for trying to do a job with too few resources. A short staff of three clerks managed the unceasing dump of packages and the daily sorting and placement of letters in boxes.

Finding more help hasn’t been easy. Neill said many of the state’s 400 post offices have openings. To secure once-coveted USPS jobs, applicants must be registered for the Selective Service and must pass a background check and a drug test. In a funky, enjoy-life-to-the-fullest ski town such as Crested Butte, there is widespread speculation that a urine sample that doesn’t show some level of THC may be hard to come by.

Also, Crested Butte has other mail-delivery pressures. Amid growing population, second-home owners are becoming more of a community-shaping factor — they arrive in droves over the Christmas holiday. A growing shortage of affordable housing means many businesses, not just the post office, compete for too few workers.

The Crested Butte Post Office isn’t alone with its postal woes. Some other Colorado mountain towns also have suffered delivery problems.

Last winter, Summit County’s mail delivery was a snarled mess, with some mail arriving up to a month late. The USPS in Denver, blaming winter storms for the troubles, sent crews to help with the backlog.

Estes Park’s mail-delivery system bogged down so badly in 2017 that townspeople started a petition to remove the postmaster. Mail delivery was very late, wasn’t being delivered to the right boxes or was being “returned to sender” for no reason. Unlike in Crested Butte, residents blamed the local staff. It took congressional pressure to turn the worst of that around through training and personnel changes, but delivery glitches have continued.   

In Crested Butte, while MacDonald continues the so-far-fruitless emails with Amazon, Mayor Schmidt has tried to put pressure on the Postal Service. But he expressed frustration with a federal bureaucracy as labyrinthine as the stacks of packages in the local post office sorting room.

Schmidt said he wishes the overcrowded local office wasn’t locked in a lease in its current location and could move to a larger space, even though it would mean losing its central location — a point of natural, and usually cheerful, community interaction on Elk Avenue.

“I am afraid this is going to be one of those problems that just keeps growing,” Schmidt said. “It’s just very frustrating.”

Alisa Krakel braves a winter storm to collect her mail from the United States Postal Service’s mail annex located in Crested Butte South. Since home delivery is not available in the Crested Butte area residents of outlying areas get their mail from post office “cluster” boxes located in or near their communities. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)


    Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm