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    In the Zone

    Car washes may be great profit centers, but zoning and permitting can often prevent rollout.

    By Matthew Enis

    As convenience stores evolve, the number and variety of services offered by chains have grown quickly to suit the needs of an ever-changing customer base. It's no longer unusual to find stores offering customers everything from fresh foods to dry-cleaning and banking services.

    Car washes, in particular, have become a popular new profit center for many retailers.

    "Car washes are expensive and they require a lot of maintenance, but they have been a great benefit to us," said John Phillips, president of 11-store Regal Oil Inc., explaining that the chain's one self-serve and three automatic washes have captured both new customers and incremental sales from existing ones.

    Yet, car-wash challenges often come even before the system is in place. While Phillips had little trouble obtaining permits to build his car washes in San Angelo, Texas, where his chain is based, other operators are not as fortunate.

    In one extreme example, two years ago the city council in Colorado Springs, Colo., rejected Amoco's request to build a c-store and car wash in a "Planned Business Center" (PBC) zone, despite the fact that the proposed businesses were expressly permitted in PBC zones. After legal battles, the issue was settled in the company's favor.

    Similarly, after obtaining the proper permits from local officials, an operator in Pleasanton, Calif., was taken to court by a local homeowners' association, which argued — after construction of the car wash had already been completed — that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should have been required from the developer.

    Lawsuits notwithstanding, the myriad requirements that cities can demand in conditional zones can cause headaches and, in some cases, a decline in projected business.

    "Until you've got permits, you've got nothing," said Keith Kondrot, a principal at Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based Street Scape Architecture. He noted that despite being environmentally cleaner than home washes, car washes still confront a public perception that they are wasteful, pollution-ridden businesses.

    "In rural areas, community leaders are more eager to accommodate business owners," he said, "but as you get closer to suburbs and metropolitan areas, there are more and more restrictions. Planners nationwide call gas stations and car washes NIMBYs or Not In My Back Yard."

    Council Persuasion

    Education is the key. In this case, it's car-wash operators who need to educate local lawmakers to the problems of dirty water and discharges — not from car-wash facilities, but driveway cleans.

    "Some counties are car-wash friendly," said Mike Perry, Georgia district sales officer with Lincoln, Ala.-based Complete Car Wash Systems. "But in those that aren't, there really is no solution other than working closely with officials and explaining to them that automatic and professional self-serve car washes use significantly less water than washing at home or hand-washing."

    Martinsville, Va.-based Speedway Centers Inc. won over its local councils during a severe 1999 drought by voluntarily shutting down the self-service car washes at each of the chain's six stores for two weeks.

    "Both city officials and our customers appreciated that choice," said Richard Compton, vice president of operations for Speedway Centers. "This summer, though, we're facing new water restrictions and the county has asked us to remain open. They would rather have people washing at our stores than in their driveways."

    If an operator can successfully educate local lawmakers regarding these benefits, they will be much more inclined to permit car washes at c-store and petroleum sites. Yet while a bit of arm-twisting and healthy debate at the city council never hurt anyone, Kondrot said that operators should not lose sight of the motives behind some restrictions.

    "You have to be realistic," he said. "A city zoning plan might require 15 parking spaces for a QSR, 10 stacking spaces for the car wash and another five spaces for the convenience store. If a retailer is asking a city council to bump their zoning requirements down from 30 spaces to 10, then they're fooling themselves."

    Zoning codes are written to minimum standards, he explained, and if the new addition to a business is successful, there's a good chance it will need all those parking spaces.

    Often city councils will refuse to budge on more trivial grounds, though, and Kondrot suggested that retailers planning to install a car wash should focus their research, and ultimately their pitch, on the following three points:

    More service, same customers.

    The primary users of the car wash will be existing c-store or gasoline consumers, so the site will not generate significantly more congestion on nearby roads and intersections.

    Same customers, more services.

    Multiple services on a single site will actually reduce traffic movement onto and off city roadways — a major cause of congestion. Customers who want food, a fill-up and a car wash will be forced to make three separate traffic movements if these services are not all offered in one place.

    Pros for the environment.

    Professional car washes benefit the local environment. While hand washing at home can cause toxic grease, phosphates and heavy metals to wash down storm drains, dirty water from car washes is filtered through grit traps and treated in sanitary sewer systems. The International Car Wash Association (ICA) recently completed the first phase of a study confirming these environmental benefits.

    Wash Options

    "If the county is dead set against [allowing a car wash at a site], then quite frankly it's usually best to pick another site," said Perry.

    Yet for those operators that view a wash not as an option, but a competitive necessity, there are some other routes that can be taken. For example, a county that strikes down a proposal for an in-bay automatic may consider permitting self-service bays on neighboring land.

    Also, Mark Thorsby, executive director of the ICA, said that he had seen a few c-store owners begin to offer hand-washing services in urban areas where permits can be more difficult to obtain. Old auto service bays at many urban locations also offer the space needed for these services.

    However, he pointed out that c-store shoppers are frequently in a hurry. "They're there to get in and out fast, so they probably won't be interested in staying there for another half hour to wash their car."

    Retailers should also be aware that different car-wash configurations attract different customers. "With car washes, there are four different types of people," said Phillips of Regal Oil. "There's the person who washes his car at home, the person who uses self-service wands, the person who uses automatics and the person who goes to a full-service wash or auto detailing shop."

    By Matthew Enis
    • About Matthew Enis

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