Kinston, North Carolina, is near just about nothing. The textile jobs went overseas years ago. Tobacco fell victim to lawsuits and health concerns. The airport has a runway two miles long and no commercial flights.
The Kinston Indians baseball team, pride of this town of 21,677 residents, left this year. Now the mail-processing plant and its 93 full-time jobs might follow the minor-league ballplayers to Raleigh -- leaving more room for the landlord of part of its space, a homeless shelter.
The U.S. Postal Service plans to shut 223 of its 461 mail- processing plants as it tries to stanch losses that Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe predicts may reach $18.2 billion a year by 2015. The service’s moratorium on closing plants lifts May 15, and it said it could save $3.1 million a year by closing up in Kinston and moving its work 92 miles.
“Around here in these times we’re living in, you can’t even give a house away,” said Perry Welch, 64, who has worked at the plant since 1973, making him the longest-tenured employee. If the plant closes, he said he’ll retire or try to find a job at the adjacent post office.
Donahoe, who started with the service in a post office, said plants like Kinston’s aren’t needed with first-class mail volume 25 percent less than in 2006. The plant closings would save about $2.5 billion a year, he said in February.
The service wants to stop promising overnight service for letters. Without that self-imposed mandate, it may have fewer processing plants that are farther apart. Plants on the list to close are spread around the U.S. in rural and urban areas, including facilities in Los Angeles, Chicago and Staten Island, New York.
The U.S. Senate passed a measure last week that would put off closing processing plants and rural post offices. Donahoe is encouraging the House to take up a bill that would make it easier for him to close facilities.
Processing plant workers across the U.S. earn an average of $53,159 a year, said Sue Brennan, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based service. Average wages in the region including Kinston are $41,949, according to North Carolina’s Eastern Region, an economic development agency.
The Kinston workers, protected by a union agreement, may choose to commute to Raleigh or, if they’re old enough, to retire. While some plant workers live in Kinston, other employees already commute as much as an hour -- through little traffic -- to and from work.
Naomi Fairfax, 32, has worked at the plant for 6 1/2 years, commuting about 45 miles (72 kilometers) from Jacksonville, North Carolina. She said she’s “resigned to it closing. I wish they would tell me because I’ve got children.
‘‘People have to sell their houses if they’re going to relocate,” she said. “And what if you move and have to move again? What if you go to Raleigh and they say ‘go to Charlotte?’”
Boarded-up storefronts occupy parts of Queen Street, Kinston’s main drag, while Christopher’s Cafe and a handful of other eateries bustle during breakfast and lunch. The Chamber of Commerce occupies a stone-columned building that includes vestiges of what it once was -- the main post office.
Kinston’s unemployment rate in February was 10.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from a high of 13 percent two years earlier. Unemployment has stayed at more than 10 percent since January 2009.
The region, starting about 20 years ago, pinned its economic development hopes on developing a giant cargo hub on the grounds of its airport. The state-backed Global TransPark has a runway capable of landing the world’s biggest planes.
Airfield of Dreams
Local business development executives traveled last year to the Paris Air Show and to the Farnborough International Air Show the year before to try to drum up business. They courted FedEx Corp. (FDX:US) before it chose to build a facility in the Greensboro area, about 150 miles away.
Spirit Aerosystems Holdings Inc. (SPR:US), a supplier to Airbus SAS and Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., is the biggest tenant at TransPark with 270 employees.
Global TransPark was a “build it and they will come. And they just weren’t coming for two decades,” said Kinston Mayor BJ Murphy.
“At one time, Kinston was one of the foremost economic areas east of Raleigh,” Murphy, 31, said over breakfast at Christopher’s, where he greeted entering patrons by name or as sir or ma’am.
“But tobacco and textiles left and that really hurt us,” he said.
The postal processing plant is two blocks from Queen Street, in a building it shares with Friends of the Homeless. Rent paid by the service provides about a third of the $71,000 annual budget for the 40-bed shelter and soup kitchen.
“That would cut deep into us providing the services we provide,” Jasper Newborn, 67, the shelter director, said during a mid-day lull.
Sanderson Farms Inc. (SAFM:US) is hiring manual labor for a new chicken processing plant at the edge of town. Murphy is excited about the new jobs, which Newborn knows about because his clients would be happy to land them, at $8 to $9 an hour.
They’re not jobs postal workers are likely to want, said Jim Kleckley, a professor at East Carolina University in nearby Greenville who studies the region’s economy.
Spirit announced last year it would add as many as 200 jobs over five years, though they’re expected to be skilled manufacturing jobs that would require specialized training.
“Jobs change over time,” Kleckley said. “It’s going to be that everywhere. But one of the difficulties we have in eastern North Carolina is it’s more difficult to get new jobs to replace the jobs lost.”
Inside the postal plant, 40 workers stand operating hulking machines from 10 p.m. until around 6 a.m., seven nights a week, sorting mail for zip codes starting with 285. It’s an area stretching from beach towns Morehead City and Atlantic Beach through salt marshes and collard shacks to the one-time tobacco fields closer to Kinston.
On a busy night, a million pieces of letter mail may move through the plant’s machines. On an average night, 400,000 to 500,000 pieces do. Trucks back up to 14 loading docks to bring the sorted mail to post offices for delivery that day.
Will Smith, 53, and many of the other workers have been told for the past five years that their facility might close. Should that happen, Smith faces a 228-mile round trip commute between Raleigh and his home in New Bern, North Carolina.
“I really, really wouldn’t want to move or commute to Raleigh,” said Smith, the American Postal Workers Union local president, shaking his head. He said he hasn’t decided for sure.
Keisiva Ward, 32, started working at the plant five years ago, about the time mail volume and postal finances started their downward spiral.
“You never thought working for the Postal Service you’d go through this,” she said in a parking lot across from her workplace. “You thought you had a foundation.”
The plant’s temporary manager said it can be hard for the employees to see the scope of the Postal Service’s distress.
“To some degree, they don’t see the big picture,” Brenda Edwards said from her office. “It’s their whole world. And this area here is so depressed.”
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