Week of February 21, 2000
  Snapshot from the Field

Going Postal: Maine Site Search Delivering Express Angst

There are classic case studies in impolitic site selection searches, and there are classic case studies in impolitic site selection searches.

And then there's the case of the U.S. Postal Services' (www.usps.gov) helter-skelter search for a new Maine distribution center.

This project may give a whole new meaning to the phrase "going postal": Employees are outraged, and so are numerous elected and economic development officials, who're sniping at one another in no uncertain terms.

Seemingly a primer in pretzel logic, the Maine location project has a byzantine history: It dates all the way back to 1996, when Post Office officials first began looking for a new distribution center site to serve southern Maine.

The existing center in Portland, built all the way back in 1933, had been totally outstripped by demand. In fact, simply to cope, postal officials had had to lease space in four other facilities in the Portland area.

Clearly, it was an unproductive alignment of real estate assets, and a new facility was needed. And it needed to be a big one, accommodating a staff of some 850 workers.

Postal Service officials began their search by saying that they wanted a 400,000-sq.-ft. (36,000-sq.-m.) center with a far more total work space, more docking areas and break-room space, and updated mail-sorting equipment. And employee commuting time was "a top priority," said Paul Purcell of the Postal Service's real estate arm based at the organization's Arlington, Va.-based headquarters.

And that, many observers would say, was the last time this site search made much sense.

30-Site Search Narrows to Three

The Post Office's site search team reportedly looked at 30 sites in the region. By July 1997, it had narrowed the field to three sites in and around Portland: one in the city of Portland, one in Scarborough Downs and one in Scarborough. Significantly, Postal Service officials specified at the outset of the site search that an environmentally sound site was essential.

Somehow that criteria seems to have gotten a bit lost along the way: The site search team initially picked the Portland location. That acreage was not only near the Fore River Wildlife Sanctuary; it also contained 12.5 acres (five ha.) of wetlands.

Predictably, a number of area residents came forward to vocally oppose the distribution center project. The Postal Service, however, plowed on. It performed its own environmental studies and then applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permits that would fill seven acres (2.8 ha.) of the wetlands that were on the Portland site.

Official: 'Wouldn't Pass a Straight-Face Test'

In November of 1998, though, Army Corps Project Manager Jay Clement released a blistering report. Clement's report blasted much of the Post Office's plan, most particularly its contention that the seven-acre fill in Portland would do less damage than filling some two acres (0.8 ha.) at the Scarborough Downs site.

"This wouldn't normally pass a straight-face test," Clement wrote in his report.

That, as you might imagine, sent the site search team back to the drawing board.

By Jan. 22, 1999, postal officials called another press conference. Citing wetlands issues, they announced that they were abandoning the Portland site.

A New(?) Contender Emerges

Post Office officials also said something else at that press conference that ignited yet more controversy: A new contender -- the Lewiston-Auburn area, which was located well outside Portland -- might now be very much in the race for the new distribution center, they explained.

Officials from the Lewiston-Auburn area attended the Postal Service press conference on Jan. 22. Those officials, though, maintained that they hadn't gotten involved in the site search until the Postal Service decided to abandon its plan for the Portland site.

Other local area observers, however, charged that the Lewiston-Auburn area had gotten involved earlier. Postal Service officials, for their part, had no comment on that issue.

A Decision . . . Momentarily

By now, things were so bad they seemingly couldn't get worse. And the fractious issue at least seemed to be settled, however clumsily, on Oct. 20.

That was the day on which the Postal Service called another press conference to announce that it was relocating Maine's biggest processing and distribution center to one of two sites in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

But the apparent resolution touched off another outpouring of angst.

Immediately, postal employees were up in arms. If the facility moved to either of the Lewiston-Auburn sites, an estimated 80 percent of the Portland center's current employees would have to make at least a 35-mile (56-km.) commute each way to and from work.

Portland officials also registered loud and very public disapproval.

The outburst again knocked the Postal Service back on it heels. So much so, in fact, that on Dec. 3, it said it would reconsider Portland area sites.

"New information" had prompted that flip-flop, officials said. Part of that new information, they explained, was a recent amendment to postal regulations that relaxes rules on developing on sites on which wetlands are present. (Of course, the first site the Postal Service picked had passed the organization's own environmental assessment.)

Confusingly, postal officials on Dec. 3 also asserted that they were still committed to the Lewiston-Auburn area.

'No Forgiving, No Forgetting'

This tangled site selection web continues to spur heated public sparring among a host of Maine's local, state and federal officials.

One former state senator from Auburn, for example, vowed there would be "no forgiving, no forgetting about the things that Portland's done."

A Portland official fired back, "They used the same tactics a year and a half ago."

At press time, officials said a final decision should come before spring.

But even with the warming weather that will then be approaching, the issue's resolution won't likely soon thaw the frosty relations that this project has generated.

At this point, no matter what the decision, it's almost certain to leave a lot of people howling.

And you thought your search team had problems.



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