In the post September 11th environment, there’s a lot of talk about protecting our territory. While protection against terrorists may or may not make sense for Canada (I think that we’re overreacting badly) for many independents in the service business, it’s not terrorists that pose the threat, but municipal councilors and, to a lesser extent, the oil majors. I’m thinking of a well-known Toronto business that will face a move out of its neighborhood after some 30 years of successful operation. Why? The oil major isn’t renewing their lease. Don’t get me wrong, the company isn’t a villain in this case. The combination of sky-high property values and the threat of serious liability if underground tankage leaks are incentive enough to convert independents into 7-11’s with pumps. The scary part is that even if affordable property is available to the operator, there’s little chance of getting the zoning and permits needed to operate a service business. Never mind that they’re cleaner, quieter and better looking than the “grease pits” of thirty or forty years ago (and there were many good ones then, too), or that local auto service means far greater convenience for homeowners. It seems to me that there is a conspiracy among many municipal councilors to force auto service businesses into auto malls and industrial zones, often miles from established markets. What sense is there in forcing drivers to travel great distances to drop off and pick up their vehicles in this busy age? The proliferation of convenience stores like 7-11 suggests exactly the opposite: people are willing to pay a little more to pick up a litre of milk now, near home, avoiding a trip to the supermarket. All retailing is trending toward convenience. We can’t deliver our service through the Internet. Why then, are local politicians so willing to drive out such an essential neigbourhood service as an auto repair business? I don’t understand it.
Are there solutions? I think so. One is to get rid of the insane liability rules that scare owners of established stations to remediate immediately if they suspect older storage tanks may be a threat. Clean them up IF they leak, and establish reasonable limits to liability for events unforeseen by owners of stations. Maybe institute a periodic groundwater check at the site, and certify it as clean. Talk to the insurance industry along the same lines, and stop fining operations for damage they don’t know they’re doing.
Another solution is to make sure that neigbourhoods have land zoned for auto service businesses in perpetuity. If a convenience store makes sense then so does a garage. Lock in that zoning to guarantee neigbourhood access to auto service that’s walking distance for most consumers.
The issue of high land prices is harder to address. It’s a fact of life in places like Vancouver and Toronto, and as a result, it’s no wonder that the oil companies would rather sell potato chips, since the sales per square foot needed to rationalize commercial space that expensive makes the mini-mart one of the few viable forms of enterprise possible. It’s a serious urban planning issue, but one that won’t be addressed, like the others, if independents don’t get involved. Forget Afghanistan and call your local alderman or councilor and express your concern. No one knows more than you about what happens to squeaky wheels.