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
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
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
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.]
supporting Wawa was circulated and, he said, garnered about 900
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,"
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
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
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.
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.