Take a little drive. You can start anywhere in the East Valley. Find a major street. Head in any direction.
You don’t to have to go far until you hit a corner with an empty gas station behind a chainlink fence. They seem as much a regular part of the street-scape as the lantana and bougainvillea favored by water-conscious landscape architects these days.
We live in an economic environment where we seem to be competing with other areas of the Valley, the nation and even the world to entice the right kind of businesses and workers to locate here.
Every aspect of public life from sporting events to support of the performing arts to preschool education to medical research is framed as an economic development issue. Well, this surely qualifies.
Looking at a boarded up building every time you come to stoplight is hardly a selling point for relocating. Unless you are in the chain-link fence business.
But empty gas stations are an odd kind of blight. A closed gas station — even a whole string of closed stations — doesn’t command the same kind of attention as a shuttered shopping mall or a faded downtown.
A fenced-off Joe’s Texaco or Jim’s Union 76 or Jack’s Chevron won’t spark endless rounds of city council debates, proposed subsidy deals and referendums.
Yet the empty gas stations are highly visible. The gas stations that fail are usually at a busy intersection.
Another odd thing: Gas stations are selling a commodity we need. That was certainly brought home last summer when a gas pipeline break brought long lines to the pump for a few days.
And with all our SUVs, no one can accuse East Valley motorists of skimping on fuel consumption.
So why are all these stations going under?
Many were owned by independent operators who say the oil companies have squeezed them by unfairly pricing gasoline, charging them more than nearby company-owned stations. The oil companies deny this.
In some cases, the oil companies declined to renew leases.
The independents are further hurt by the consolidation in the industry and some majors pulling out of the market, said Luz Rubio executive director of the Southwest Automotive Trades Alliance, a group of independent dealers.
Rubio’s statewide association is down to 96 members who sell gas, from 121 last year. In the late 1980s, 300 members sold gas.
Some empty stations will be redeveloped. "It depends on how much other development is going on," said Jay Butler of the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University.
A gas station on the corner of a happening shopping center has a better shot of finding a new tenant than a standalone station or one located near a dying strip mall.
Some of the older stations have been made into fast food places, sandwich shops, and of course payday loan stores. Often it’s a case of finding a business that needs a corner, Butler said.
Perhaps we need a little more imagination. A proposal to give a developer $36.75 million in tax breaks to put a Wal-Mart in a old mall site passed a city council.
Surely we could find a few tax breaks for small business start-ups willing to fill up old gas stations.