It started out as a barbershop conversation. Unlike similar one about sports, politics or current events which take place every day, it didn't end when the haircut did. Instead, it sparked an ad hoc community effort which grew in the span of a few months until it was large enough to move a county government department to take the rare step of reversing a decision.

What is amazing is that it involved turning out some 200 people to vehemently support a large regional corporation at a civic association meeting and nearly 100 of them for a follow-up session on a cold, rainy night. Civic activists hold such numbers to be impressive in an age when community involvement is by far the exception rather than the rule.

What is even more amazing is that the cause involved was one that, by no conventional standard, would be considered likely to evoke much interest, let alone passion. The issue: whether gasoline pumps belong in front or in back of a proposed convenience store.

To be sure, the original conversation was not that much out of the ordinary. Earl Benningfield's Club Avenue Barbershop is directly across Philadelphia Pike from the looming hulk of a building which once housed Brosius & Eliason, a lumber and building materials supplier. For about two years, word around the neighborhood had it that Wawa, a regional convenience store chain which, following a trend in its business, has also gotten into the gas-and-go business, wanted to tear the building down and put an outlet there.

So it was natural that Chuck Riley, who lives in a neighborhood a short distance up Harvey Road, would inquire about the status of the project. His barber friend wasn't sure. All he knew is that it apparently was held up because of a stalemate between Wawa and the Claymont Renaissance movement over whether the planned 16 gasoline pumps should be in front or in back. The county Department of Land Use, which has to approve building projects, reportedly sided with the community organization's position that in back would be in keeping with plans for redeveloping Philadelphia Pike as a 'village main street'.

Riley said he thought that was all well and good, but redevelopment of that section of the highway is years away "and we're living in the here and now." He questioned why "anyone would want to stop a company that wanted to invest $8 million and bring jobs into the area."

Riley, 59, a retired Navy Seabee chief petty officer, is not one to let such an apparent anomaly rest.

"I decided to call up Wawa and find out what was happening," he said.

He was referred to Wendie Stabler, the company's Delaware lawyer, who confirmed that things were at an impasse. The company insisted that having the pumps in front is an important aspect of the way it

does business. The county, which is cooperating in the Renaissance movement, said that building to the 15-foot property line was a standard that should be enforced.

Riley said he didn't know much about those things, but realized that he had never seen a gasoline station with pumps 'out back'.

But, he said, that wasn't the real issue. As he saw it, the issue was how the Renaissance movement could claim its position represented the 'will of the community' when only a small number of Claymonters are involved in its decision making. Officials of the movement, and the Claymont Community Coalition, the umbrella civic association which was one of the Renaissance  originators, counter that their meetings are open to the public and anyone is welcome to attend and participate.

Be that as it may, Riley said he set out to discover "how the community

Chuck Riley

felt." He invited Stabler and Wawa officials to a meeting in his home to explain their position. He also invited his neighbors. Twelve husband-and-wife couples came.

From there it was decided to call a general open-to-everyone community meeting to get the message out to a wider audience. Riley went to Staples to duplicate flyers and recruited young people to distribute them.. The meeting was held in the auditorium of Claymont Intermediate School and attracted about 80 people.

From there, he said, interest grew, mostly by proverbial word-of-mouth. Except for one radio station blurb, there has been no media coverage. [He did make use of Delaforum's Community Voices feature to present his position and encourage discussion.]

A petition supporting Wawa was circulated and, he said, garnered about 900 signatures.

Riley said that, counter to an impression that Wawa has engineered the meetings and other activity, they were entirely his idea.and those of like-minded Claymont residents. "I'm the one who raised the issue. Wawa didn't do it. I called them; they didn't call me," he said.

Also, he added, neither he nor family members nor anyone he knew prior to the issue's emergence have any connection with the company. "I'm not getting anything out of it except knowing I'm doing something for the community. I don't like people getting stepped on," he said.

He said his out-of-pocket expenses have totaled about $300.

Riley grew up in Holly Oak. He dropped out of Mount Pleasant in the 11th grade to join the Navy. While in the service, he had four tours of duty in Vietnam and earned a high school diploma and associate degrees in mechanical engineering and the automotive trades from Los Angeles Community College. After retirement in 1986, he went to work for the city of Newark, where he now is its chief mechanic.

Things came to a head on Mar. 20 when some 200 people showed up for a Claymont Community Coalition meeting at the Brandywine Senior Center at which Stabler and Wawa officials were on the agenda. The room filled to capacity and about 80 prospective attenders had to be turned away to comply with fire regulations.

Charles Baker, general manager of the New Castle County Department of Land Use, also attended and told the audience, which was overwhelmingly supportive of the Wawa proposal, that he and department planners were rethinking their position. He scheduled a follow-up meeting for Apr. 7, at which nearly 100 people showed up, despite grossly inclement weather.

It was indicated there that the matter is virtually settled in Wawa's favor, pending favorable resolution of a sanitary sewer capacity issue.

Neither Riley nor anyone else claimed a victory.

He said he has no quarrel with the Claymont Renaissance or those who are involved with that movement. "They have some good ideas. But I don't like the way they're going about it. They're not on the same wavelength as the community," he said.

He also said that he has no political ambitions and isn't interested in leading a civic association. "I do plan to stay active and keep an eye on what's happening," he said.

Posted on April 7, 2003

2003. All rights reserved.

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