Why the Iconic Chain is Facing a Backlash – Texas Monthly

Buc-ee’s! Home of the interstate highway system’s most gleaming bathrooms! Buc-ee’s! The birthplace of Beaver Nuggets snacks, home to an incredible array of jerkies, land of infinite fruit snacks! Buc-ee’s! The mischievous beaver mascot, taunting motorists from billboards with come-ons like “Only 262 Miles to Buc-ee’s. You Can Hold It.” It is a Texas icon, a brand to which many in the Lone Star State feel a fierce attachment, a beloved intermediary between our state’s far-flung destinations. Buc-ee’s!

Also: a place some outside Texas—and even some here—would apparently prefer not to have as a neighbor. Over the past several months, the chain has been embroiled in a battle with residents of the North Carolina community of Efland, about 25 minutes west of the college town of Chapel Hill, where some feared that a planned Buc-ee’s would worsen traffic congestion, pollute a protected watershed, and offend aesthetic sensitivities. The protest came as Buc-ee’s expands across the South, with new stores opening in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, as well as North Carolina. Communities are struggling with the Buc-ee’s paradox: it’s a great place to take a break during your journey to wherever, but some folks tend to get nervous when it decides to move in next door—or even a half-hour away.

The fight in North Carolina came to a head on Friday, when Buc-ee’s dropped plans to build one of its supersized travel centers after demands by local officials that it shrink the size of the project and agree to add more electric-vehicle charging stations, among other requirements. “Unfortunately, Orange County Commissioners were not receptive to 200 jobs with starting pay of $15 per hour and full benefits, more than $1 million in direct tax revenue, and multiple services that would create additional jobs, tax revenue and benefit a sector of the community that has been historically underserved,” Buc-ee’s said in a statement that served as a bit of a parting shot.

The Buc-ee’s proposed for exit 160 in Efland was truly massive, even by the company’s outsized standards: a 64,000-square-foot beast with sixty gas pumps and a 250-foot car wash. A sign featuring the beaver’s grinning visage was to tower above the highway, skirting local regulations. And because of zoning ordinances at the proposed site, the county held all the cards: the site Buc-ee’s hoped to develop was zoned for an office or manufacturing business, and the company was left asking the county, which controls zoning in unincorporated Efland, to loosen restrictions.

Who could possibly hate Buc-ee’s? The core group of opponents included folks who live in the neighborhoods near the site. Jared Cates, one of a number of residents who live within a thousand feet of the proposed Buc-ee’s, formed a group called A Voice 4 Efland & Orange to oppose the project. Cates says that when he bought his home a year and a half ago, he harbored no illusions that the undeveloped stretch of green off of the highway would remain idyllic farmland forever—he just didn’t expect that a property zoned for office or manufacturing use might be home to one of the world’s largest gas stations–cum-carnivals. Cates says he’d prefer a warehouse to Buc-ee’s.

In addition to these earnest objections, there were also matters of taste. The Voice 4 Efland logo is a demonic-looking beaver, smoking a cigarette and idly dripping gasoline out of a can. “A lot of it goes to the identity of this county, and that’s not a massive eighty-foot bucktooth beaver sign with billboards saying ‘LOL, It’s Party Time.’ It’s quite frankly tacky,” Voice 4 Efland member Del Ward, who lives less than two miles from the site, told Texas Monthly. Would he feel differently if it were, say, a Pilot or Flying J truck stop? “The thing is, we have those places three miles down the road,” he said. Does he think Buc-ee’s will have a dramatic impact on the amount of gasoline North Carolinians pump? “I’ve literally never sat in line at a gas station here,” he said. “Why would anyone need another gas station?”

But Buc-ee’s almost surely wouldn’t be building a project in Efland if it didn’t think the market could support another gas station. The company, which declined our request for an interview, presumably had the market research to indicate that motorists on that stretch of highway would, in fact, be pleased to have another choice for filling up their tanks or grabbing some fresh-roasted nuts. “That spot is just so perfect,” said Sara Pequeño, who wrote about the Battle of Buc-ee’s for the Orange County alt-weekly Indy Week. “Everyone comes in off that main road. It’s I-40—it goes all the way to California.” She also noted that folks in politically progressive Chapel Hill, who live nowhere near the Buc-ee’s site, were involved in protesting the project. “People’s reactions run the gamut, and some of it does come off as straight-up NIMBY-ism and being afraid of having a nuisance,” she said.

Despite Ward’s and Cates’s specific objections, some community leaders in Efland (population 709) salivated at the prospect of new jobs, further economic development, and increased tax revenue that Buc-ee’s could have brought to a low-income, largely African American community. Those leaders didn’t want to lose a big opportunity just so some out-of-towners could make a nebulous statement about fossil fuels or late-stage capitalism or Texas’s cultural hegemony. It wasn’t just about traffic jams—some folks just didn’t want a Buc-ee’s to open up, period. “Buc-ee’s was trying to move into a place that has a really long history of public protest and the public being involved in the decision-making process,” Pequeño said. “It might have been a little more than they bargained for.”

Even in the beaver’s beloved home state, some communities have pushed back against its expansion into their backyards. In 2014, city leaders in Corinth—a suburb just south of Denton on Interstate 35 East—rejected a proposal from Buc-ee’s to build a 96-pump, 60,000-square-foot facility that became a community flashpoint. Residents complained about traffic and light pollution, and argued that the neighborhood could do better. “We don’t want a glorified truck stop,” the Dallas Morning News quoted one of the 97 residents who spoke late into the night at a public hearing as saying.

Writing in a local newspaper, Corinth mayor Paul Ruggiere cited an entirely different reason why, despite his personal loyalty to Buc-ee’s as a brand, he didn’t want one in his town. Ruggiere believed that the tax incentives sought by Buc-ee’s—a sales tax rebate worth half the city’s normal take over the store’s first fifteen years—were excessive and would keep the project from delivering net economic benefits to the town. Ultimately, the city voted 3–2 against the concessions, effectively killing the project.

The following year, Buc-ee’s announced that it would open a new location in nearby Denton if the city agreed to $8.1 million in sales tax incentives. That project, too, faced opposition. More than two hundred Dentonites organized to oppose the development, similarly citing a grab bag of concerns such as light pollution, increased traffic, and too-generous tax incentives. But the city agreed to Buc-ee’s terms. In 2016, the company announced a spot in the San Antonio exurb of Boerne, after both the city and Kendall County agreed to let the company keep 50 percent of the sales tax revenue from the store for its first twenty years, despite a local petition with more than five hundred signatures opposing the move. (The $40 million project has been postponed till 2023 due to planned infrastructure improvements in the area.) Tax rebates are a key ingredient the expansion of in Buc-ee’s in Texas, and even larger cities can be persuaded by the beaver to give the company a share of the sales tax its customers pay. The first Fort Worth Buc-ee’s opened in 2016, with a sales tax rebate worth about $9 million over ten to fifteen years.

The Efland Buc-ee’s proposal never included a tax rebate package, but some locals were nonetheless skeptical that the project would deliver a net gain for their economy. “There are a lot of people in this community that would like a good-paying, decent job that treats them well, but it takes about two minutes to google Buc-ee’s employee reviews and find out that this isn’t the place for poor, working-class people looking for a career,” Ward said. (On the employer-review website Glassdoor, 45 percent of the 363 reviews posted by Buc-ee’s employees say they’d recommend the company to someone else—10 percentage points lower than Pilot/Flying J and 22 points lower than Love’s.)

Supporters of Buc-ee’s do exist—in North Carolina, as elsewhere—and they too have a case to make. Bonnie Hauser, who sits on the board of Orange County Schools, said the project would have pumped tax revenue into local schools and spurred further development that could see Efland become home to high-paying jobs that went beyond selling Beaver Nuggets and cleaning those famously pristine bathrooms. “Opportunities like this don’t come to Efland,” she said. “Buc-ee’s wanted to invest $150 million in this community.” She argued that folks in Elfland just needed to open their hearts. “People in Orange County don’t know Buc-ee’s,” Hauser says. “It’s not our grinning beaver mascot. Maybe they’d feel differently if it were a Tar Heel.”

In the end, though, North Carolinians are likely to get introduced to Buc-ee’s one way or the other. In a statement announcing that the company was withdrawing its rezoning proposal, Buc-ee’s real estate director Stan Beard said that while Efland might not be in the cards, the company “remain[s] committed to North Carolina, and [is] confident we will find another location that is suitable to the unique travel experience Buc-ee’s brings.”

 

Correction: The original version of the story stated that the Buc-ee’s in Boerne had opened. In fact, it has been delayed until 2023. The story has been updated.

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