June 20, 2010 in Business

Station owners feel hurt of boycott

Robert Samuels McClatchy Newspapers
 

MIAMI — For four years, Rosa Paz has owned a BP gas station in a hotspot — steps away from caravans trekking to South Beach; blocks away from theater buffs going to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and sports fans spilling into the AmericanAirlines Arena.

But since crude oil started clouding the state’s coastal waters, a fifth of Paz’s gasoline sales have evaporated. Drivers have opted to take their money elsewhere. Protesters, holding picket signs, have stopped there instead.

Now, at the intersection of Northeast 10th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, Paz finds herself at a crossroad: If business doesn’t pick up soon, she says she’ll have to start trimming hours from her nine employees — or, in the worst case, trimming the employees themselves.

“When they don’t shop here, they think they are hurting BP,” Paz said. “But they’re hurting my employees and their families. They’re hurting me. I am not BP.”

The gusher in the Gulf has forced a bit of moral mathematics to be played at local pumps. Of the nearly 10,000 BP gas stations in Florida, the company owns zero. Owners like Paz get their gas from a local distributor, not the company directly. She has no closer relationship to the crude oil company than she does to Coca-Cola.

Still, with the company logo splayed along their awnings, BP gas stations are the company’s most accessible, visible symbol. So, when a person decides to protest or boycott, they must debate with themselves: Is this the right place to do it? And is it fair to the local business?

“I probably owe this woman an apology,” said Miriam Cruz, who organized 100 people to protest in front of Paz’s gas station last weekend. “Because my protest wasn’t personal, per se. But we need ways to express our anger, and this seemed like the best place to start.”

It was Cruz’s protest that’s most puzzling for the owner. Cruz’s crew showed up riding bikes, with only with only body paint — meant to symbolize tarballs — covering them.

“There were men in thongs,” Paz recounted, horrified.

“Maybe I should have sent her a letter explaining our position,” Cruz said. “Well, at least I hope she was amused.”

Data for fuel sales from across the state will be released next week. They will provide the first indication over whether there has been any significant backlash against BP — or the industry in general — since tarballs began plopping on state sands in the Panhandle.

But one thing is clear: Gas prices are lower now than a month ago. In Miami, data from AAA show gas prices dropping about 20 cents per gallon in the past month. The same is true for Fort Lauderdale.

“BP lowered their prices and the others did the same because the industry is very competitive,” said Maximo Alvarez, president of Sunshine Gasoline Distributors.

Protests at gas stations are not unusual. In 2006, there were boycotts at Citgo stations — owned by the Venezuelan government — to rally against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. And in the late ’80s, there were boycotts of Exxon after an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez tanker into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska.

The current situation might be more problematic, said Pat Moricca, the president of the Gas Retailers Association of Florida. No one knows when the underwater well will stop gushing, which will prolong boycott efforts. And gas stations are almost all franchises now, meaning local owners who operate them will take the brunt of the hit.


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