A gas station and convenience store chain is racing forward with plans to build a new location just south of State Route 316.
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners could vote Feb. 8 on a variance request by RaceTrac Petroleum Inc., which plans to build an 18-pump gas station on the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 78 and Mars Hill Road. The project will likely move forward whether or not commissioners OK the request to decrease a county-mandated 50-foot buffer on the back of the gas station's property to 13 feet.
The commissioners approved a rezoning request and a separate variance for the 2.371-acre property for RaceTrac last fall. This final variance, which was endorsed by Oconee County Planning Commission members in October, had been postponed until now at the company's request, according to the Athens-based engineering firm Williams & Associates, which is handling the requests.
The board's decision on the variance is the latest step in the $3.9 million project that would have the RaceTrac gas station and 7,600-square-foot convenience store completed by the end of the year, according to the rezoning application. RaceTrac representatives declined to comment on the project.
The owner of A J’s Food Store and gas station that sits catty-corner from the overgrown site is already concerned that the RaceTrac will cut into her store’s profits.
“The economy is already so slow that when you have any kind of competitor move into the area, you’ve got to be concerned,” said Fritzie Coker, who has owned the store for 25 years. “I suspect that I’ll lose some of my gas sales at least.”
A J’s sells BP brand gasoline, and RaceTrac’s gas prices tend to be a little cheaper because it’s unbranded, she said.
Though it wasn’t always called A J’s, the store has been on Highway 78 for more than 60 years, has its own mini meat market and serves made-from-scratch food for breakfast, lunch, and weekday dinners.
Hundreds of folks stop by each day to fill up their tanks, grab a soda or pick up lunch from the store’s food counter, and Coker believes many of her regular customers will keep coming despite the draw of a new gas station across the street.
“We know a lot of our customers' names — we call them our friends because we see them all the time — and they know us,” Coker said. “We may look like a convenience store from the outside, but we are just like a little neighborhood store.”
The store and its 18 employees will continue to foster personal connections with customers once the new gas station opens its doors, and hope that’s enough to keep folks coming back.
When one of her regulars complained that she couldn’t get cash back on a credit card transaction and didn’t have any cash to take to her grandson’s first little league game last week, Coker reached into her pocket and handed the woman a $20 bill.
“She said, ‘I can’t take this,’ and I told her it’s not like I wouldn’t see her the next day,” Coker said. “That’s the kind of thing that will set us apart and keep people coming in. We offer something different than RaceTrac offers.”
RaceTrac has opened more than 80 stores in the past three years.
The company purchased the land at 2231 Monroe Hwy for $1.51 million last December under Andalufia Properties Inc., according to the Oconee County Property Appraisal department.
The purchase was made directly from the Orkin family, who own about 10 acres surrounding the planned gas station, according to Gary Whitworth of Whitworth Land Corporation, the commercial real estate firm that handles some of the family's ownings.
The company-operated RaceTrac stores are often in high-volume and high-traffic metropolitan areas and have convenience stores with around 5,000 square feet of space, according to the company’s website.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Oconee County Board of Commissioners would vote on a rezoning request for the proposed RaceTrac gas station at its Feb. 8 meeting. The commissioners had actually approved that request and a variance in October. They are now scheduled to consider a separate variance request for the same property.