For 25 years, Ken Currle and his team refilled tanks, changed oil, tuned up engines and more at the City Sunoco gas and service station at the intersection of W. Broad and West St. in the City of Falls Church. But when development plans for a big mixed-use project that includes the site of his business were finally approved last year, it marked the beginning of the end stages of Currle’s transition out of the Little City.
Currle opened the City Sunoco at the corner of W. Broad St. and N. West St. in 1993, adding to the lineage of gas stations that occupied the land before him starting in 1955. The business enjoyed major success for most of its first decade and a half in operation until around 2008. That’s when new, larger tenants began to show interest in purchasing varying parts of the four-acre plot of land that encompassed the Sunoco and 7-Eleven and spanned to the border of Saint James Catholic Church’s property and had a cloud of uncertainty hovering over Currle’s future.
What started as possible deals with a Canadian bank and the now-defunct Chevy Chase bank became enticing for the City when developers Spectrum Development, LLC and Mill Creek Residential proposed to construct a movie theater, hotel and apartment complex on all four acres.
The ball didn’t start rolling on the Founders Row (formerly Mason Row) project until 2013, but Currle saw the writing on the wall back in 2008 and began searching for a new location from that point on in hopes of not losing his devout clientele.
He landed on the then-struggling Pimmit Hills Sunoco just outside of the City’s boundary on Patterson Rd.
So Currle bought the location in 2009 and operated both the City Sunoco and the Pimmit Hills one until this past Oct. 30, when the Founders Row project progressed to a point that required Currle to vacate his post.
“We wanted to keep our customers,” Currle said. “It took a little bit of luck and a little bit of foresight to do just that, so it’s worked out for us.”
Making the move when he did was wise, but straddling between the two gas stations with little concrete idea of when the transition would end was a challenge for Currle.
Once it became clear in 2013 that the Founders Row project was a definite, Currle switched to a month-to-month lease at the City location. Because of the changes to his lease, he had to get creative in acquiring (and re-acquiring) warranties for the property, which usually run about a year at a time. He also saw his profit margins dip considerably, since new customers knew he wasn’t going to remain in the City for long. Currle was able to avoid incurring any losses, however, despite the loose timetable on when he was required to move out.
A big reason why Currle avoided going in the red was because of the personal touch he brings to his services that engenders loyalty with customers.
His son, Chris, who helps run the family business, noted that over 90 percent of their customers come from the City.
Typically, Currle points out, the services are very cut-and-dry. If his station has the ability and the equipment to accomplish a task, it can be done in a timely and cost-effective manner. But Currle prizes his customers’ feedback and perception of the services — which can be a hit-or-miss characteristic when it comes to chain establishments of any kind.
“We don’t like our customers to be unhappy. If there’s a problem, we’ll take care of it. If we created the problem ourselves, we’ll take care of it at no cost,” Currle said. “We’ve always been committed to being communicative with our customers and extremely concerned about for the way they feel about us.”
Even with the City’s development vision affecting his business, Currle holds no ill-will toward the local government. He mentions that he happily served current and future City Council members at his City Sunoco as well as many members of the City’s staff, to go with large swaths of the Falls Church citizens. And while he is supportive of the City’s vision and wishes that Founder’s Row and other pending developments produce the desired results, he does feel they’ve lost touch with regular citizens and some of Falls Church’s core identity, including the small business community.
“Falls Church has always [thought of] themselves as being a village. That village is going. It’s just going to be another Ballston in the end if this continues,” Currle said, before adding later on, “My kids went to Saint James [Catholic School] and we’ve been involved in the City for decades, so I’m hopeful [the Founder’s Row development] is very positive and everybody benefits.”