Downtown Hotel, Florence Gas Station:
By Edward Shanahan
The near hysteria surrounding the look and shape of the new downtown hotel proposed for the Roundhouse House lot behind City Hall Annex underscores the unforgiving nature of the marketplace.
It can conceive, fund and deliver a superior product, space or service and it can fail miserably and disappoint absolutely. That's the way with private capital.
The verdict is still out on the upscale Hilton Hotel, which remains only as a concept and massive image printed on a large sheets of paper, subject to change for better or worse.
Site of proposed hotel
But once the city government (Mayor and City Council and planning department) elected to give away this valuable piece of public property for $1 we know that it will be built. Be assured of that, either with setbacks or not, either with a cafe intruding into Pulaski Park, or not, either with more space for light and air for the residents of the adjacent apartment complex along New South Street or not.
The market will decide these matters. If a $1 investment in a million-dollar plus strategic downtown site can produce a huge profit it will happen, for better or worse. The public has lost control at this point, so it can only operate on the basis of hope and promises, making earnest requests and representations to the developers to do their best for the city. Good luck with that approach.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, where not as many architectural critics and articulate advocates reside - downtown Florence - the marketplace is promising big changes as well, although there is not much public awareness or concern so far.
After all, we are just talking about a gas station, even though the site in question is close to being the very heart of Florence's commercial district and its surrounding residential neighborhoods.
Is anyone aware of how different things have been over the last several months at the Mobil station on the corner of Main and Maple streets? No cars parked awaiting repairs, no gas being pumped many days because of orange cones are placed in front of the pumps. Virtually no sign of life.
The whole scene, usually humming with activity, is eerie, and more than a little depressing, even though many of us don't have much emotional attachment to gas station aesthetics.
The explanation is complicated, but, once again, in essence, it is the workings of the marketplace, in this case Exxon-Mobil, one of everyoneís favorite public service enterprises, which apparently wants to squeeze out the Morrow brothers, Dale and Don, or Beetle as most people know him.
A steep increase in future rent for the station has forced the Morrows, who have operated the station for nearly 40 years, to consider other options, including getting out of the business entirely, or buying the property, which is hugely valuable to the oil giant or another buyer, who want to operate a business on the choice site.
So the Morrows are trying to work out an arrangement to purchase the property from Exxon-Mobil and then sell it to a large gasoline distributor that operates a string of retail stations and, thus, can turn a profit. If you are Dale and Don, small entrepreneurs, there is no place for you in the gas station business any more, just witness the Mobil stations on Route 5 near the Clarion Hotel and at the corner of King and Barrett streets standing empty and abandoned.
Beetle has already moved the repair business to Hatfield Street at its intersection with North Elm Street, so the bays in Florence are used now only for car inspection.
But what if the sale of the property to the Morrows does not happen or they can't strike a deal with a distributor to buy the property? Then Exxon-Mobil goes into the marketplac e ñ thereís that word again- and finds a different buyer for the property, which in my untutored view is probably worth between $500,000 and $1,000,000. And what happens then? What would replace the gas station? And what impact would that new enterprise have on the score of small businesses clustered around Florence center?
Timothy Shea owns much of the storefront property in Florence, including the strikingly evocative brown-stone Parsons Block and the el-shaped structure on the corner of Main and North Maple Streets, occupied by the busy Post Office and other small stores.
Like his father before him, also Tim, Shea the younger, has by charging affordable rents (as a former tenant I know this) been able to keep those small businesses functioning, even to the degree that he will not rent to a business that might be competitive to one of his existing tenants. He has a sense of community that spans more than a few generations. We can safely say that he is not market driven.
But what lies ahead for the Shea real estate holdings and the residential tenants and small shops, when time passes and generational circumstances change?
So enjoy Florence today, with its funkiness and total lack of sophistication, for it may become just a faint memory one day soon.
Alas, the marketplace: we worship it and fear it in about equal measure.
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