The downtown Columbia post office in the American City building xxxxx (Photo by Jon Sham / January 14, 2013)

There will be a post office in downtown Columbia for the foreseeable future, whether it stays in the American City building on the lakefront or moves to a location nearby, a United States Postal Service official told community members in a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Last week, a USPS spokesperson said the future of the post office remaining in its current spot was uncertain. In the meeting Tuesday at the postal service's main Columbia branch on Oak Hall Lane, USPS real estate specialist Richard Hancock said the post office didn't want to move from the spot where it has been serving the community since 1969.

"We're very much interested in staying where we're at," Hancock told approximately 20 people who turned out for the meeting.

According to Hancock, lease negotiations "are ongoing." He said the post office was hoping for a five-year lease to remain in the building, with the option of a possible five-year extension after that. The current lease expires on May 31, 2014.

John DeWolf, senior vice president of Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the building, said the earlier uncertainty was the result of "a little bit of a communication gap over what kind of term we were talking."

The post office's current lease is a six-month extension of a lease that just ended, and Howard Hughes officials interpreted the short-term extension as a sign that the post office might not want to commit to a longer tenancy.

"If they are looking for a five-year lease, we can do that," DeWolf said.

Neither Hancock nor DeWolf knew when negotiations would be finalized, but DeWolf said the two groups were "supposed to get together very soon."

At the meeting, Hancock explained what would happen should an agreement between USPS and Howard Hughes fail. His job, he said, was to find viable alternative locations for a post office in downtown Columbia.

"I'm the guy who is plan B, if a deal cannot be arranged," he said.

According to Hancock, a minimum 15-day holding period began Nov. 5. During this time, the postal service announces a concept — in this case, a possible relocation — and then solicits input from the public and county government.

Hancock described the holding period as a "wait and see," an opportunity to test the waters as well as to explore alternatives.

"We as an organization are not going to allow ourselves to be in a position where we cannot maintain our service," he said. That means if negotiations to stay in the American City building were to fall through, the post office would need to have other options in mind for a possible relocation.

Hancock said the postal service had no plans to shut down operations in downtown Columbia altogether.

"We will either stay where we're at or we will move a block or two away from where we are," he said. "We want to stay as close as possible [to the current location]."

If the postal service does decide to move, the process of choosing a new location could take about a year, with multiple opportunities for public comment along the way.

"It is a rather evolved process. This is the beginning of it. That's why I came here," Hancock said.

He said if the post office were relocated, he would be looking for a rental space of about 1,500 square feet. In the American City building, the post office occupies about 2,100 square feet.

He said the post office had been offered a space in The Mall in Columbia, but "we generally don't do that."

Both Hancock and DeWolf said they were optimistic the post office would remain where it is.

"There absolutely should be a place for the post office downtown," DeWolf said.