Is this Walmart, all over again? The plight of the independent gas station

The defunct Speedway Racing Gas station on Speedway in Tucson is abandoned and surrounded by a chain link fence. Signs reading “unleaded” and “diesel” are still on display to the busy streets, albeit with the prices long taken down and the 12 pumps now untouched. Graffiti abounds on the expansive property. At second glance, one can see that the fence is bent at the corner, so even though the gas station has been closed for years, it is clear that people have been inside – but not to fill ‘er up.

The Speedway Racing Gas lot, located at Speedway and Tucson. Photo by Lauren Shores.
The Speedway Racing Gas lot, located at Speedway and Tucson. Photo by Lauren Shores.

Speedway Racing Gas is not suffering alone; abandoned gas stations are scattered across the city, with more of those chain link fences sprouting up every day. The epidemic has spread to Green Valley, too, which closed its third gas station in two years this week. When asked why these gas stations have been left to decay in the last few years, Jim Egan, the real estate agent for the Speedway Racing Gas lot, summed it up in one phrase: “QT.”

According to Egan, the introduction of QT, or Quik Trip, and Circle K to Tucson has largely driven out independent gas stations that can’t compete. Because the price of gas is so competitive (Aren’t we all guilty of driving an extra mile or so to scout for cheaper gas, even if the difference in price is only a penny a gallon?), independent stations can’t afford to keep up.

Quik Trip, a gas station and convenience store chain with 678 locations nationwide, currently has nine Tucson locations. Tempe, Ariz.-based Circle K has more than 10,000 locations worldwide, including 10 in Tucson. Many of these Tucson locations for both stores popped up in the last two years.

Meanwhile, lists 17 gas stations for sale – most of which were once local businesses. And considering the fact that the list does not include Speedway Racing Gas, one must assume 17 is a conservative estimate.

Tom Cooley ran four gas stations in Tucson for 15 years, including the former Q-Mart Subs and Pizzas at Alvernon and Pima. After years of decline, he decided to sell the lots when he reached retirement age. Instead of QT, though, he blames grocery stores for the decline of independent gas stations; when grocery stores can afford to offer their customers 10 cents or more off per gallon of gas as shopping rewards, it’s hard for the little guys to stay afloat.

Q-Mart Subs and Pizzas, located at Alvernon and Pima. Photo by Lauren Shores.
The Q-Mart Subs and Pizzas lot, located at Alvernon and Pima. Photo by Lauren Shores.

“The biggest problem is that everyone wants to give away gas,” he said. “Fry’s is the worst. There’s no money left in it.”

According to a Wall Street Journal article published in 2012, “Pain at Pump is Hitting Gas Stations,” the first supermarket gas station was actually at a Costco in Tucson, which opened in 1995. It took a few years for this grocery and gas industry to grow, but it finally exploded in the last decade; now more than half of Costcos have pumps, and many Safeways, Fry’s, and other stores have followed suit. But even without that competition, independent owners’ money woes can also be attributed to the rise of credit card use at the pump (and those pesky credit card fees) and the popularization of fuel efficient cars – when people don’t have to fill up as often, gas stations don’t get paid as often. In fact, the entire gas industry is suffering from that, not just the independent gas station owners.

In a market that favors inexpensive products from recognizable brands, it is difficult for local businesses to stay alive. That is what inspired movements like Small Business Saturday, recognized on Nov. 27. The movement has been gaining ground since its founding in 2010; American Express estimated that consumers spent $5.5 billion on small businesses on Nov. 27, 2012 alone, and claimed that 67 percent of Americans were aware of Small Business Saturday when it occurred.

Despite these recent support efforts, gas stations may not make it.

“We are supporters of free market play,” said Jerry Bustamante, a member of the Arizona Small Business Association. “Any time we can encourage members to keep money in-state, we do, but I couldn’t tell you the future of gas stations.”

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