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Demolition of Healdsburg's burned out post office could begin as early as today, but it remains uncertain whether a new postal facility will rise from the ashes.

On Tuesday there was a glimmer of hope as the family that owns the downtown post office property said they want to have it continue there.

"It's the intention of the owners to rebuild and to have the Post Office back in there," said Doug Nelson of Bend, Ore., who is married to one of the three sisters who own the parcel.

But a U.S. Postal Service official said it's too early to say whether the post office will have a continued downtown presence.

"No final decision has been made. We're in the process of setting up a meeting with city officials to talk about the options," said USPS spokesman James Wigdel.

Two years ago, Healdsburg officials rallied to keep the post office downtown when the postal service threatened to close it and consolidate mail operations at the more-distant carrier annex.

But the Aug. 14 fire changed everything, especially since the postal service is losing billions of dollars annually and the trend is toward closing locations.

"I think this is a little more of an uphill battle than we had two years ago. It's one thing to have a facility that's already up and operating. It's another thing to lose the facility and be in a position to try and find something else," said Mayor Jim Wood.

City Councilwoman Lisa Wittke Schaffner also is worried. "I felt like we saved it and then it burned. Every time I drive by, I get a sick feeling in my stomach," she said.

The fire was of undetermined origin, but investigators ruled out arson.

City officials are keen to keep a downtown post office, which they see as good for local businesses. And residents say it is conveniently located in the heart of town, a meeting place to run into friends and acquaintances.

"It's very much in character with Healdsburg," said Robert Wilkie, a retiree who lives on Westside Road. "Healdsburg is a town where people live and work. It's not just a tourist town."

County supervisor-elect Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg resident and former mayor, said "there's been an outcry of support to maintain a storefront post office downtown."

He characterized it as "an economic development issue." Several hundred, and perhaps as many as 1,000 people a day would come to the downtown post office, and some might stop nearby for a cup of coffee, order business cards or make photocopies.

"It really helps downtown merchants," McGuire said, adding that there is no bigger issue at the moment in the town of 12,000 people than re-establishing a downtown post office.

For the foreseeable future, however, all mail operations are being conducted out of the Foss Creek Circle carrier annex about a half-mile away, next to the Highway 101 freeway.

The annex was built nine years ago to process the delivery of mail to residences and business in the Healdsburg area.

The downtown office, which has been at the same site on Center Street since 1969, was the only retail post office in town. It had 1,766 post office boxes and a staff that provided counter services, including stamp sales and package shipment.

Currently, all post office box holders have to collect their mail at the Foss Creek facility, which has been crowded following the fire. This week, two clerks waited on a line of people that stretched out the door.

The delay was caused by post office box holders having to show their identification before the clerk went to retrieve their mail. New post office boxes are being constructed at Foss Creek so that patrons will be able to access their mail 24 hours a day, as they did at the downtown location.

And the seven public parking spaces, including one for handicapped — probably will be expanded soon to as many as 40 spaces, said Postmaster Joe Machado.

"It's been a nightmare," he said of the fire. "We just want the community to get the service they deserve and not be inconvenienced. For now, they are being very patient and we appreciate that very much."

Of those standing in line, downtown was the preferred location for the post office.

"I like it better (downtown). There's a bank next door," said Dan Mills, a Healdsburg resident since 1964.

"It's convenient for people who don't have a car. It's good to have something downtown," said Diana Torykian, a caregiver and resident of River's Bend senior community.

But Wanda Alary, a lifetime Healdsburg resident, said she doesn't mind walking the distance to the Foss Creek facility. She said it also provides her an opportunity to work out at a nearby health club.

Public opinion is something the post office takes into account, USPS spokesman Wigdel said. But cost also is a factor. He said the postal service paid $80,000 a year to lease the Center Street property. The lease expires in February 2012, with an option to renew until 2017.

Nelson said his wife and her sisters are getting the insurance settlement finalized from the fire and want to start rebuilding.

He said if the post office declines to move into the new building, the property owners probably would seek other tenants.

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