Geographically speaking, the U.S. Postal Service's new East Bay Facility may be less than a dozen blocks south of the main post office in downtown Provo. However, as far as advantages in mail processing and expanded customer services go, the new building seems to make a world of difference.

The East Bay Facility, 936 S. 250 East, officially opened Monday to customers wanting to purchase stamps, rent post office boxes or deliver bags of bulk mail.

However, the real story is behind the scenes, or behind walls and out of sight from the average customer.

The building is the new site of mail processing for much of central and southern Utah - all cities with zip codes beginning with 845, 846 or 847.

The area - approximately 51,000 square miles with a population of 336,000 - is bounded by Provo in the north, Millard in the west, the Utah-Arizona border in the south and Carbon and Grand counties to the east.

Before Monday, mail processing was based in the Provo Post Office. But working arrangements had become overcrowded and sometimes hazardous, said Blaine W. Hess, Provo's manager of mail processing.

The main Provo office - now referred to as "the old post office" by local postal employees - totals only 19,000 square feet. Take away the window-service area, offices, post office boxes and all, and only about 8,500 square feet was available for mail processing.

The result was little working space, congestion and processing operations that came to a standstill while one phase was being completed on a certain machine before a second phase could be started on the same equipment.

The 63,000-square-foot East Bay Facility boasts 23,000 square feet of working space. Hess emphasized the size of the available space as he walked through the new work area Monday. "Our old building could fit in here alone."

In fact, sorting machines, canceling machines, pigeon-hole racks and loading carts occupy only about three-quarters of the working space for mail processing. Hess called the vacant areas "expansion space. He hopes that state-of-the-art optical-character readers, bar-code scanners and computerized forwarding machines can be added in the future.

An optical-character reader and bar-code sorter can sort up to 30,000 pieces of mail in an hour. Presently, mail processing in Provo is handled by six single-position letter-sorting machines, which combine to sort 24,000 pieces per hour.

Right now, mail that needs to be forwarded is sent to Salt Lake City, where new-address information is kept on computer files. That increases delays in forwarding mail.

State-of-the-art equipment for Provo is on hold, thanks to a federal spending freeze placed on the Postal Service's capital improvements.

While the new equipment remains part of a wish list, the East Bay Facility did benefit from receiving several more models of existing equipment to aid processing efforts. Add more machinery to the increased space, and the result is a more efficient use of time, people and equipment, Hess said.

Meanwhile, the East Bay Facility is more than just a "mail-processing factory," Hess said. "Everything you have done at the main office you can do here, with the exception of (pplying for) passports."

Other services include a half-dozen service windows, more than 1,370 post office boxes, several parcel-size boxes for distributing packages too large to fit in a customer's post office box, a bulk mail drop-off counter, and Provo's site for the day's latest postmark - the latter coming in handy on the April 15 deadline for filing income taxes.

Another plus is the new facility's East Bay location, which offers convenient access to I-15 for postal trucks coming from and going to all points throughout central and southern Utah, as well as to and from a major area distribution postal center in Salt Lake City.

Other benefits stem from the building's construction. Hess said the $3.4 million total price tag was nearly half of the original $6.75 million allotment first considered by the Postal Service.

With mail processing moved now to the East Bay Facility, the main Provo post office will now become the base for the city's regular carrier services. The postal annex, located in west Provo near I-15 and the present site of carrier services, will eventually be phased out, Hess said.