Merced gets its landmark post office

MERCED -- A special delivery arrived at Bell Station post office Thursday morning -- a Priority Mail envelope containing the deed to the property.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D- Merced, signed for it and then handed it over to Mayor Ellie Wooten. With that, the city of Merced officially took over Bell Station, a downtown landmark that once faced a shaky future.

The 1933 building now belongs to the city, which will maintain the post office, 1,200 PO boxes and historic murals inside.

"We're proud to have this building and we'll keep it always as one of our treasures," Wooten told the crowd, which included U.S. Postal Service officials and representatives from the General Services Administration, the gov- ernment agency that previously owned the building.

Thursday's event marked the smooth end to a rocky road for the federal building. In 2005, the GSA declared the building "surplus property" and put it on the auction block. The Merced City Schools District then planned to acquire the building and renovate it for offices.

That move would have forced the post office out of the building, prompting an outcry from downtown postal customers. As Cardoza put it, "I have never seen more public input on any issue than the closing of the Bell Station post office."

When the school district scrapped that plan earlier this year, the city stepped in, submitting an application to the GSA to take over the building.

With pressure from Cardoza and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the GSA fast-tracked the city's application, breaking "bureaucratic land-speed records" in the process, said Cardoza.

He called the rapid transfer a success story, proving that federal and local officials can work together effectively.

Officials and art enthusiasts in Modesto are hoping for their own post office success story.

El Viejo Station at 1125 I St. was headed for an online public auction after negotiations to sell it to Stanislaus County for a public art education center apparently bogged down.

But the GSA withdrew the building from the auction process and resumed negotiations with Stanislaus County.

The building could be used for special events such as banquets, as a box office for the nearby Gallo Center for the Arts and as offices for the arts commission. Some space could be leased back to the U.S. Postal Service.

Not so long ago, Cardoza was chiding the GSA in a speech delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives. He derided the agency for ignoring community concerns about Bell Station's impending closure.

But on Thursday, Cardoza and GSA officials were all smiles as they welcomed the building's new landlord. The city will now lease space in the building to the post office. The city is considering a plan to convert the rest of the 15,000-square-foot structure to a "government center," which could hold offices for elected officials.