During the past 33 years, John Dearborn, 55, an alumnus of the Laconia State School and graduate of Laconia High School, has pumped gas at Sanborn’s Auto Repairs, Inc. of Court Street. He has become a face of the business, a favorite of customers and one of the most familiar and beloved members of the community.
But, later this month Sanborn’s will shut off its pumps, one of some 250 stations in New Hampshire faced with the choice of investing to bring its fueling system into compliance with regulatory standards or no longer pumping gas. What for the garage boils down to a business decision, for Dearborn poses a personal challenge, for he is not paid for what he does. His work is his reward.
Matthew Jones of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services explained that in 1985 the agency began requiring new underground storage tanks to be of double-walled construction and in 1997 required all underground storage tanks to be of double-walled construction as well as fitted with double-walled piping by Dec. 22, 2015.
Ginny Sanborn said the station installed double-walled underground storage tanks in 1989, but has not connected its tanks to its pumps with double-walled piping. Several contractors have quoted costs of between $140,000 and $160,000 to complete the required work, she said. Gasoline sales represent a shrinking share of the business, she said, and would not generate a reasonable return on the investment.
In the past, Sanborn said, the station sold 500,000 gallons of gasoline a year, but with the opening of Cumberland Farms, annual sales have slipped to about 150,000 gallons. Sanborn’s sells ExxonMobil and is hard pressed to price competitively. Sanborn estimated that gasoline sales add between $5,000 and $6,000 to the bottom line, while service and repairs represent the lion’s share of the business.
However, unlike most gas stations, Sanborn’s has no self service, but, with Dearborn, provides full service for all its customers.
“We have a lot of older and handicapped customers,” Sanborn said. “Some who come all the way from Franklin.”
Jones said the impact of the regulations has fallen most heavily on what he called “mom and pop” operators, particularly those with convenience stores. He explained that “while it’s tough for small businesses to make money selling gasoline, without it they have a harder time drawing customers.”
Moreover, Jones said that with the imminent deadline to bring stations into compliance, contractors have increased the cost of installing the required tanks and piping, sometimes as much as by multiples of three or four. In addition, he said that banks are reluctant to provide financing for the work to small businesses. Meanwhile, the larger companies, like Irving and Cumberland Farms, have sufficient resources to ensure their stations are in compliance.
While Sanborn is confident that service and repair work will sustain the business, she expressed concern for the patrons accustomed to receiving full service and especially for Dearborn, who, except in winter, rides his bicycle to the station day in and day out, to provide it.