Sign of the times: Gas stations close, open because of the economy

PIEDMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- For years, gas stations have struggled to make money strictly by selling gasoline. Now, with rising rents and new developments pushing them out, it's even tougher.

In the city of Piedmont, one is for sale and another is going out of business.

Loyalty runs deep for customer Michelle Jones.

"Nobody's touching my car but Simon," she says.

Simon Ho owns the Valero station in the center of town. He's built a close relationship with customers over the past decade.

"My customers are pretty steady and pretty loyal," he says.

But loyalty can't overcome the economic realities forcing him to close by the end of April. His monthly rent is about to more than double.

He says, "They went up from $8,000 to $18,000. That's 110 percent and there's no way I would be able to afford it."

We tried to reach Ho's landlord but haven't received a call back. Ho says he was told the new rate is more in tune with market rates.

In addition, the profit margin for selling gas is slim. Ho's mechanic shop has been keeping the business afloat.

Business is also down 10 percent because of the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles.

"Everybody is trying to go green, which is nice. I don't have a problem with that," Ho says.

The only other service station in Piedmont is a Shell gas station. Owner Jeff Hansen is considering selling the station because state law requires him to dig up his underground tanks and replace them by 2025.

"People I know who've gotten involved in having it done now have paid $500,000 to $600,000 to have it done," he says.

Gas stations open and close quickly because of the economy. Figures from the California Energy Board show Alameda County had an estimated 338 stations in 2010. That dropped to 310 in 2014 and clawed back to 378 by 2017.

San Francisco had 103 gas stations in 2010, 79 in 2014 and 93 in 2017.

What those figures don't show is the loyalty a good mechanic can generate. Piedmont police take a dozen squad cars and two trailers to Ho's mechanic shop. Captain Chris Monahan says they plan on following Ho when he moves.

"It'll be a little bit more of a drive for us but we plan on using Simon to continue servicing our vehicles," he says.

Ho plans on opening a new repair-only shop in Oakland at 14th Ave. and McArthur Blvd. by early May.
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