By Tim Kelly
Just when you thought Ocean City was going to face the summer tourism season with no gas stations along the Ninth Street corridor, the former Grace Oil station at Ninth Street and West Avenue became the current Grace Oil Station.
Quietly and with zero fanfare, the station, shuttered since March, reopened at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
“It’s a good idea to have a gas station here,” said Steven Underwood of Mount Laurel, Burlington County, who was in town for a day trip with his mother, Mary Ellen. “It’s convenient. I needed gas and now I can just leave town and get right on the (Garden State) Parkway.”
It was thought the station would be demolished before Memorial Day to clear the way for a new bank and parking lot. Wiesenthal’s Auto Repair Shop, which originally operated the station and the repair business on the site, closed April 1.
In recent years, Wiesenthal stopped selling gas and Grace Oil took over that aspect of the business, sharing the building with the repair shop.
Co-owner Don Wiesenthal said a gas station and repair shop had operated there for more than 50 years. And now, it appears the gas sales portion of the facility will be back, at least for the summer season.
There was speculation that regulations, including environmental cleanup of the station, could not be completed for demolition to take place in a timely fashion.
No matter the reason, Grace Oil made the decision to re-open and take advantage of gasoline sales to summer visitors and residents.
Ocean City’s year-round population of 12,000 swells to 150,000 during the summer months, and prior to the station’s re-opening, the lone remaining gas station in town was at 34th street and West Avenue.
Attempts to reach Grace Oil Company for comment were unsuccessful on Wednesday. However, the “OPEN” signs plastered around the station property, the open glass door and numerous American flags waving near the pumps spoke louder than any official word from Grace Oil.
Bobby Sharma and Varinder Kumar were working at the station on the first day back in operation since April.
Sharma said “a few things had to be fixed” prior to the re-opening, including turning the pumps back on, posting prices and stocking shelves with different grades of conventional and synthetic motor oil.
“If you check the oil, you’ve got to be prepared to sell the oil,” Sharma said.
In addition to gas and oil, the station also sells propane gas tanks. Sharma said there will be a soda machine installed after a mercantile license is obtained from the city. One of the gas pumps remained out of order Wednesday.
While business was sparse, one local resident, who gave his name as “Kenneth,” but declined to give his last name, said he was pleasantly surprised to see the pumps and the station open for business.
“It’s no fun to have to drive over the bridge just for gas,” he said. “Your choice is to go all the way to 34th Street or go offshore.”
During a 45-minute visit Wednesday, only three vehicles pulled in to purchase gas.
“People aren’t used to it yet,” said Sharma, adding that they will want to take advantage of the station beginning with the busy holiday weekend. “People will come from far distances and they don’t know (the station had closed) in the first place. They will drive up and (the re-opening will seem) normal.”
The stage was set for the dearth of gas stations on Ninth Street in 2015. At that time city officials addressed the problem of three blighted former gas stations – an Exxon on the in-bound side of Ninth and a BP and Getty on the westbound lanes out of town.
The rusted, crumbling properties stood in stark contrast to Ocean city’s pristine beaches, family-oriented Boardwalk, restaurants and many other attractions. They also made a bad first impression, city officials and tourism boosters said.
“Abandoned properties are not what we want people to see when they first enter Ocean City,” Mayor Jay Gillian told OCNJDaily.com at the time.
The city earmarked over $1 million from its operating budget to clean up the area and made efforts to purchase the stations.
Ultimately, Ocean City partnered with Cape May County to create a landscaped mini-park where the BP and Getty stations had been.
Prior to that, the old Exxon site on the in-bound side of Ninth Street was purchased by the Keller Williams Real Estate firm, which has plans to erect a new office building.
While no one would argue the visual improvement of replacing the old stations with a park and a modern office building or the environmental benefits of removing underground gas storage tanks from a barrier island, the price of progress is a loss in convenience.
“Saturdays in the summer – changeover day for rentals – will be challenging,” Don Wiesenthal said in April of the increased traffic both coming and going in Ocean City. “You’re asking people to adjust from multiple gas stations and a repair shop on the main corridor in and out of town, to no repair shop and no gas stations.”
All that changed on Wednesday.
“They are going to crush it here,” Mary Ellen Underwood said. “They have a captive audience and no competition.”