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Gas Station Knee Deep in Decorations

"U.T." Brown almost threw the golfing world into a spin when he called Arnold Palmer by the nickname of his nemesis, Jack Nicklaus, when Palmer was filling up at the Cardinal Forest Shell station.

"Arnold Palmer used to have a niece or sister that lived around there. When he was there, everything came to a stop," said Brown, from his Virginia Beach home. "I called him the 'Golden Bear,' and he said 'Hey, I am not the Golden Bear.'"

Brown and his family are celebrating the 33rd anniversary of the family-owned station, which dominates the intersection of Rolling Road and Old Keene Mill Road in West Springfield. The station's décor makes it stand out at the intersection, and Brown feels that's what initially brings customers in. The fountain, candy canes, wooden bear, lights and train going around overhead make a difference in those crucial eight to 10 seconds that are important in the marketing world.

"It takes eight to 10 seconds for a guy to decide to do business with me," Brown said "You've got to be able to do things right once you get him in there."

Springfield resident Joni Forman admitted that it's the decorations and upkeep that have kept her coming to the station.

"It's not just all cement," she said. "They managed to put in landscaping, making it more homey."

West Springfield graduate Justin Shrout mans the cash register a few days a week. He's been coming to the station for years and remembers the fund-raising events in his high-school days.

WHEN THE STATION first opened in 1969, life wasn't so easy, U.T. Brown remembered. Old Keene Mill Road was just being widened, and there were other stations in the area as well.

"Back in '69, it was a two-lane road on Old Keene Mill, a two-lane road on Rolling, and a one-lane wooden trestle over the railroad tracks. For a couple of years, I damn near starved to death," he said.

Now U.T. Brown's sons, Scott and Doug, run the operation. U. T. Brown is still involved in some of the decisions, but he trusts his sons with the business.

"We'll probably keep that in the family. I still take some part in planning and decision-making," U.T. Brown said.

Current manager Scott Brown treats the station like a second home. It's open seven days a week, and being at the station, which is two minutes from his home, is like being down in the basement or another part of the house.

"I probably spend more time here than at home. It's always been a family thing. My 13-year-old son worked here all summer," he said.

THE STATION consists of a register area near the pumps and a separate building for the garage. Although the Browns rebuilt the station in 1985, they are in need of a new roof, as the current one leaks in the rain. Doug was putting in decorations for the holiday season recently and noted the problem with the roof in relation to the electric train that runs on overhead tracks.

"The water leaks pretty bad," he said. "Shell's supposed to be doing roof work in the coming year."

U.T. Brown noticed another danger to the station in the form of gas station trends that are sweeping the area.

Many stations now combine the convenience store with the pumps and don't have garages. The rebuilt Hunter Exxon is a prime example of this trend.

"Service stations are becoming extinct," U.T. Brown said.

Brown notices it from a manager's perspective in the long inspection lines. Fewer and fewer stations have inspection facilities.

"There's been a big shift away from service bays," U.T. Brown said. "There's been a dramatic decrease in the amount of inspection stations. You can see that in the inspection lines."

The Browns' station at Cardinal Shell has proved to be a successful combination with the service. "It took us two or three years to get off the ground, but we haven't had a bad day in 20 or so years," U.T. Brown said.