Why so many car washes? Streetsboro is asking experts if the market is saturated

Streetsboro City Council is eying a temporary moratorium on car washes, hotels and motels.

The city has four car washes and 10 places where people might find a bed. Compare that with five car washes in Kent, four in Brimfield, three each in Ravenna and Aurora, and one each in Mantua, Windham and Garrettsville.

No other city, village or township even comes close to Streetsboro for hotels and motels: Aurora has four, Brimfield has four open and one closed, and Kent has one — two if the University Inn, which is mostly given over to long-term rentals, is taken into account.

The current car wash boom reflects a similar development in Portage County in the 1990s, when low interest rates meant the cost of money was cheap, Portage County Development Board President Brad Ehrhart said.

Even so, neither today’s car wash owners nor the banks are gambling.

“If you’re looking at it from an economic standpoint, people won’t put money where they can’t make money. People won’t throw money away,” he said. “Obviously, somebody thinks there’s money to be made, and we all have cars, and most of us don’t have time to do it at home.”

Demographics data dictates where the car washes — or any retail — exist, he said.

“About six and a half million cars go up and down state Route 14 every year,” Streetsboro Mayor Glenn Broska said. “That’s a pretty target-rich environment. Everybody wants their piece of the pie. Everybody always has something bigger and better than the next guy.”

Don’t expect the car wash boom to go away anytime soon. According to Business Wire, the U.S. car wash market was valued at $14.59 billion in 2021. By 2027, that figure is forecast to hit $17.34 billion. Why? The answer comes down to simple math: There were a total of 275,913,237 vehicles registered in the U.S. in 2020, and they all need to be washed. And since many people simply don’t have time to wash their car themselves, they head to one of the country’s 60,000 car washes instead.

Which means car washes are profitable: On the high end, they can generate between $500,000 and $900,000 in annual profits, according to ProjectionHub.

Today’s supply and demand aside, Streetsboro Economic Development Director Patrick O’Malia said he has to look years down the road, when at least some of the retail establishments may have closed up shop.

That would be bad news for Streetsboro, which relies on income tax to fund city services that residents have come to expect, he said. Businesses, whether shuttered or not, only contribute 5 cents on the dollar to city coffers, he explained.

Science factors into city decisions as well.

“There are certainly conflicting opinions out there whether global warming is in fact real, or what effect that might have on our standard of living,” O’Malia said. “If it is real, water’s going to become a very scarce resource at some point. I got to think a few years down the road and say, ‘OK, I guess I need to make sure that all of my residents have water to drink’ [rather] than worry about a car.”

Until a retail study spearheaded by Urban Decision Group of Westerville, Ohio, is completed, would-be developers will simply have to wait. The analysis should be complete in six to nine months, Broska said, noting that city residents had voiced their concerns that so many car washes, hotels and motels were being built.

“I’m a firm believer in letting people do what they want with their money, but at the same time I want to protect the people that are here, that have invested in the city, and that have spent a lot of money to put their business here,” the mayor said. “If somebody comes in with something new and something bigger, it may have a profound effect on them. That’s what we’re trying to guard against.”

The hotels and motels were built when Geauga Lake and Sea World brought thousands of visitors to the area, Broska said.

“At the time, we needed every single one of them,” he said. “Our big concern is if we keep on adding motels and hotels, it’s going to have a profound effect on the ones that exist. We really do feel that those ones that have been here and have tried to make a living here over a period of years, maybe they don’t need the extra competition.”

Competition breeds good prices, but too much competition can lead to price wars, which ultimately benefit no one and could lead to more shuttered businesses along the city’s main corridor. It’s a scenario Broska prefers to avoid.

“I think competition is good, but there comes a point where it becomes saturated. I don’t know if we’re at that point, but I do believe we have an adequate amount of rooms for the travelers that come into the city,” he said.

Moratorium aside, the city has already approved another car wash — Streetsboro’s fifth — on Singletary Drive and a hotel behind Wild Eagle Steak & Saloon on state Route 14. They’ll proceed, but that will be the last until city leaders digest the retail study’s conclusions, Broska said.

City council will give the final nod or thumbs down to the temporary moratorium Jan. 23. If council approves it, it would take effect 30 days from that date.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.