WASILLA -- A private post office is in the works more than a month after a U.S. Postal Service investigation suddenly shuttered the small but high-volume post office at Settlers Bay in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
The U.S. Postal Service closed the facility operated under private contract on Sept. 18 after receiving what an investigator described as "an allegation regarding the possible delay of U.S. mail." The agency canceled the contract with operator Chuck Spinelli last month.
The abrupt closure removed a convenient nearby post office -- and nearly 1,700 post-office boxes -- from about 2,000 residents of booming neighborhoods along Knik-Goose Bay Road out to Goose Creek Correctional Center on Point MacKenzie. Right now, displaced customers have to drive to the main post office in Wasilla and stand in line to pick up mail. Some report waits of up to 45 minutes.
Nina Vignola, the post office's former manager, said she decided to take matters into her own hands and applied to the USPS to become what's called a commercial mail receiving agency -- a private post office.
She's still waiting to see if the application will be approved.
Vignola said she could have taken over the contract to run the post office that was terminated last month. But she didn't want to take on "the same problem as before," which she said was short staffing. She and Spinelli say the staffing issue stemmed from USPS not paying enough on the contract.
"Our last add-on was 520 boxes, and we did not add on any employees," Vignola said.
She hopes that by operating the post office privately she can roll the post-office box fees directly back into operational and staff costs instead of paying a share to the government.
Seattle-based Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson said he couldn't say when the application process will be finished.
Vignola has been working Monday through Friday at the Settlers Bay post office from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. to prepare for the private post office. She said her first day there last week she took 500 applications for boxes.
The Knik CPU#2, as it's technically known, is so beloved it has its own Facebook page. A string of comments followed the news that Vignola plans to open a private post office there, most from overjoyed customers: "Great News!!!! Congratulations Nina! Will we keep our same box number? I am so very HAPPY for you!" Many commenters mentioned that they hope to keep their old post-office boxes: "Yay! I just paid for a year somewhere else but I'm totally staying here! Don't give my box to anyone!"
Vignola said she spent $40,000 on post-office boxes in the Lower 48. She plans to put them in the same spots as before and hopes to give customers the same ones, though the first two digits of the six-digit numbers could change.
The USPS removed the old boxes from the post office earlier this month. Those boxes are stored at the Palmer post office, Vignola said.
There's no information to release about the status of the investigation, according to John Masters, assistant special agent in charge for the USPS Office of Inspector General's western area.
"The USPS OIG thoroughly conducts their investigations and once the investigation is completed, it will be presented to the appropriate prosecutive jurisdiction for their review of the USPS OIG's findings," Masters wrote in an email Friday.
The post office closure got critical attention from members of the Alaska congressional delegation. Representatives of Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young said Friday they hadn't heard any new information about the investigation.
Vignola hopes to open as soon as USPS approves her application. The boxes won't arrive for six weeks or so, but she'll be able to start picking up mail in Wasilla and handing it across the counter as soon as she gets a business license and USPS issues her a new address.
Meanwhile, USPS is working to open a new contract postal office in the Knik area, Swanson said in an email. "Solicitation notices have been sent to those parties that have expressed an interest in operating a CPO in the area. There is no timeline for when we might be able to open such a facility."