Has Wawa's big new gasoline-powered stores made the Delco-based retailer a Wal-Mart style threat to Pennsylvania's old-line boroughs, instead of the hometown champion it used to be?
That's the allegation from a leader of a band of self-described "mom and pop businesses" in Conshohocken, where Wawa wants to put a big new store and gas pumps on Fayette St. near 11th Ave., at the site long occupied by E.F. Moore Chevrolet. Opponents include Bob Wilson, who's been in the service station business in the area for 44 years.
(Wawa's also taking over, for example, the vacant former Northeast Lincoln Mercury, and the Mayfair Civic Association has welcomed the switch, according to the Northeast Times.)
No immediate comment from Wawa, but a presentation at last month's Conshohocken borough council meeting provoked so much comment that "Wawa will be holding a meeting tonight at Fellowship House to review their plans" and "hear the neighbors' concerns," says borough manager Fran Marabella. "It's in Wawa's court." The property would need borough zoning and planning approval to fit a Wawa and service station.
Bad for the neighborhood, says Wilson: "There's a lot of rowhouses in that area. There's a road in the back that will take traffic into a smaller street. It's going to be difficult for tanker trucks to leave in that direction... These big corporations are swallowing up everything."
Wilson says he was chased out of his old, leased King of Prussia by Exxon at the start of the 1980s "after they tripled my rent, because I wouldn't play their games and sell gas at their price," he told me. "I invested everything" in what's now Bob Wilson Gulf. "Now I own the station and they can't dictate to me. I've built the business up. My son is with me. Our mechanic has been with us for many years. We've made it a good part of the neighborhood."
And not just the Wilsons. He mentally walked me up Fayette St. and Butler Pike toward Conshohocken reviewing the service station owners: "Kevin Bow, his father had the station before him, fifty years, that's an Exxon. There's Joe Black, his father had the business, he's with Sunoco. Al Torcini, he's Liberty now, his father had the business. And over on Conshohocken Road there's Adam Ferrioli, they have 65 years in.
"These guys have built the business from their fathers. They've worked their whole lives. Now this corporation will swallow things. I don't know what it'll do to the hoagie shops, the small restaurants. We're just concerned because if this comes in it'll kill everybody. You'll have one big new business, and 20 empty businesses. Everybody knows these dealers. They're good, hardworking people who've built their businesses."
In a statement, Wilson added: "Their choice of location is odd enough: in the middle of a residential neighborhood, adjacent to ball fields, miles from a highway interchange - a far cry from their usual Super Wawa locations.
"Residents are up in arms. Concern over the impact on locally owned, locally operated businesses has taken on a David-versus-Goliath feel, with several owners of mom and pop businesses banding together to oppose the proposed construction. All of them have seen what happens when Super Wawa comes to town, and they know their days are numbered if Wawa prevails.
"Other residents are also concerned about the impact of traffic, light pollution, loitering, and even the impact on the local pee wee football team. The Conshohocken Golden Bears fund a substantial portion of their operating budget from game-day concessions; concessions that will be decimated with a Super Wawa just footsteps away from the bleachers.
"The fight in Conshohocken signals a sea change in how the local community views Wawa. Whereas once seen as the home-town good guys, Wawa has now crossed over to the dark side, and is now seen as the convenience store industry’s answer to Wal-Mart: a big box retailer of epic proportions that does more bad than good when it comes to town."