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Ohio gas station boom brings fuel, food and sometimes controversy

Cars sit parked at gas pumps and outside a new Sheetz gas station in Fairborn, Ohio.
Shay Frank
A new Sheetz location in Fairborn, Ohio.

Ohio has become the expansion grounds for a number of large, chain gas stations such as Sheetz, WaWa, and Buc-ees.

Ohio's first Buc-ees will be one the largest in the nation. It will boast 120 gas pumps and a 74,000 square foot store full of its famous food and souvenirs.

The Huber Heights Buc-ee’s will be massive with nearly 700 parking spots and 24 Tesla charging ports.

In the Dayton region alone, at least 20 Sheetz stations have been built recently or are proposed for development.

But these big developments come with a cost. They use farm land or other open space to build on, and potentially increase traffic and pollution.

So why are these supercharged gas and service stations opening in Ohio now?

Expansion and Access

Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, said this recent burst in convenience stores follows mergers and expansions by other companies such as Ohio-based Speedway and 7/11.

“Now that COVID is cleared I think stations have been very incentivized with an environment of a growing business climate, coupled with relatively low interest rates compared to where they were prior," he said. "I think you’ve seen a culmination of those ingredients now play out to a lot of different C-stores (convenience stores) that have now opened up.”

De Haan said it comes down to Ohio’s desirable road traffic and truck routes.

“It’s kind of on the converge of many different major thoroughfares that cross through the state. There’s a lot of semi-trucks that cross North Ohio on their way from the East coast, into the Great Lakes, and even onto the West Coast – and keep in mind that a lot of the companies that are entering this territory have been kind of on the fringe that is just outside of Ohio,” he said.

Many of these mega stations will employ lots of people and generate thousands in sales taxes for local communities.

Environmental impact

The companies said they are taking steps to be more sustainable. That includes installing EV charging ports, LED lighting, high-efficiency HVAC, and recycling programs.

But these giant, paved gas stations also could pose an environmental threat, according to Robert Brecha, director of the Sustainability Program at the University of Dayton.

Heavier rainfall is expected with climate change, Brecha said.

“Not necessarily more rain overall, but these intense events and then where does the water go? Well, if it’s ground it can soak in, if it’s a paved surface it runs off somewhere else and then carries the pollutants into rivers,” he said.

Abinash Agrawal, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wright State University, agrees. He said both groundwater and the air are at risk from harmful contaminants as the scale of these developments increase.

“The vapors move. And vapors go, they travel to the basement of nearby buildings. And those people will inhale, and that's direct exposure to those chemicals. So it is called vapor intrusion,” he said.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said it has rules in place to lower that risk.

Dina Pierce, with the Ohio EPA, said the state requires new gas stations to be permitted and install equipment that prevents those vapors from being released.

Food and more

Buc-ee’s, Sheetz, and WaWa all are known for their food offerings. That made Robert Brecha from UD wonder if they could provide relief for food deserts.

“It would be really interesting to see if they could contribute to that if other supermarkets are not moving into food deserts," he said. "Instead of just chips and soft drinks, could they help supply food that’s really needed for people?”

Brecha also said the opportunity exists for these larger gas stations to encourage more electric vehicle use through charging ports.

Community Backlash

a grey shopping center with an elsa's sign
A Sheetz gas station was proposed where Elsa's had operated, but the proposal was rejected by Centerville.

Centerville City Council members reversed their approval for a new Sheetz after months of planning. That came after a neighboring church and senior living community raised objections about the development’s compatibility with surrounding properties.

Centerville City Manager Wayne David said in a statement their goal is to “secure the continued safety and quality of life for our residents, businesses and institutions."

Sheetz has sued to push the project forward.

Local Support

Walt Williams recently was filling up his car on his way home at the Sheetz in Fairborn.

Williams hasn’t thought much about the environmental impact of the expansions but he likes that the chain has moved into Ohio. He said he enjoys getting coffee there and looks forward to trying the food. And Willams appreciates the cheaper gas prices.

“I just happened to see the price is a little bit lower than a few other stations," he said. "And, of course, the ones across the street have to compete.”

Four other Sheetz stores are currently under construction in the Dayton area. It's a trend DeHaan and others predict will continue in Ohio.

Shay Frank was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. Before working at WYSO, Shay worked as the Arts Writer for the Blade Newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. In addition to working at the paper, she worked as a freelancer for WYSO for three years and served as the vice president of the Toledo News Guild. Now located back in the Dayton area, Shay is thrilled to be working with the team at WYSO and reporting for her hometown community.