Drive up Beechmont Avenue on any given day, and you’ll encounter these sad storefronts: empty, rotting gas stations. Beginning at the base of Beechmont Levee and continuing up the strip, as the avenue becomes Ohio Pike and State Route 125, the monstrosities multiply, remnants of failed expectations or overly optimistic business planning.

Beechmont is far from alone. There are at least 40 empty—or “orphaned,” as the bureaucrats would have it—gas stations registered with the state of Ohio for Hamilton County alone, and dozens of others in three other Southwest Ohio counties: Butler, Clermont and Warren. That’s according to figures compiled at the request of Cincy Business magazine by the state fire marshal’s office.

How is an “out of business” story making its way into the pages of a magazine that supposed to be all about “in business and thriving”? Because these lingering remnants of a petrol-rich era serve as unfortunate testaments to unrealistic policies and corporate indifference.

The fire marshal’s office tracks derelict gas stations by way of accident: The agency is charged with monitoring owned and un-owned underground storage tanks. “This information is required to be submitted by owners/operators or delegated local fire officials,” points out Shane Cartmill, public information officer for the fire marshal’s division. “This list may not be entirely inclusive of all out-of-service [stations]. This could be because of the age of the [storage] tank, a pre-1984 owned tank, or the fire official has not forwarded to us a copy of the permit for temporary closure.”

Entirely inclusive or not, the list of nuisance sites is daunting, plaguing urban and rural neighborhoods alike. A Sierra Club official might focus on the potential environmental dangers these abandoned service stations can pose: the risk of leaking underground petrol tanks, buried drums and tires, leftover automotive fluid containers, assorted asbestos, PCBs, lead and other hazards. But it’s the above-ground bricks-and-mortar that immediately draw the attention of commuters, civic associations and neighborhood development officers. These blights can deter potential investors and incoming retailers, as they are inevitably located at choice intersections and corner junctures of critical roadways, on full public view.

Across the country, some 200,000 abandoned filling stations sit on often prime locations. Developers, fearing the contamination cleanup costs associated with these brownfields, won’t go near them. Whether or not these derelict properties are truly environmental time bombs, it’s tough to argue that they’re not eyesores.

Back to our drive on the Beechmont Avenue strip. Begin with the property at the foot of the Levee (pictured above), then proceed up the route to 2300 and 7765 Beechmont, then move onto the former Pennzoil at 482 Ohio Pike, the former Stop ’N’ Go at 747 Ohio Pike, and the former unnamed gas station at 820. Are these shuttered properties really for sale? The "For Sale" sign that's been hanging on the old Marathon in downtown Mt. Washington for 15 years lists an out-of-state phone number, long disconnected.

The Ohio Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Regulations optimistically produces a handout fact sheet titled, “So You Want to Buy an Old Gas Station.” The document puts a game face on an ugly problem: “It is common knowledge that corner lots at busy intersections are considered to be desirable commercial properties and investments” for flower shops, snack food marts and the like, but the bureau first suggests that potential buyers consult real estate attorneys before taking any action.

Reduced governmental regulations, EPA “brownfield” reclamation money and market demand are making some developers take a second look at properties that once merely screamed “liability.” Federal, state and local incentives in the forms of low-interest loans, tax abatements and credits, and loan subsidies are now available to reduce brownfield capital costs. Developers can also hedge their risks, experts point out, through increasingly available self-insurance programs and indemnification agreements.

“The closed corner station remains a problem for Main Street America,” notes Matt Ward, a co-author of the National Association of Local Government Professionals report Recycling America's Gas Stations: The Value and Promise of Revitalizing Petroleum Contaminated Properties. “But a new approach is emerging that puts local communities in partnership with states and the EPA,” turning some of these properties into retail dynamos or city parks.

Not so much so in Greater Cincinnati, apparently. Track the ownership of any given station, and it’s sometimes a hand-off spanning decades, as massive oil companies shrug their collective shoulders and pass the blame to individual franchisees who occupy the sites for a few years, then abandon them rather than take on cleanup costs.

What’s more, these weed-infested hulks aggravate the retail communities where they reside. They impact the flow of current business merely by their existence—or lack of existence, as the case may be.

About 640,000 underground storage tanks (USTs) nationwide store petroleum or hazardous substances that can harm the environment and human health if they release their stored contents, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of the estimated 450,000 brownfields sites in the country, approximately half are thought to be impacted by underground storage tanks or some type of petroleum contamination.

Nationally, the Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) is responsible for promoting the cleanup of leaking tank sites. At the state level, it's up to the Ohio fire marshal’s office and local fire departments. In Kentucky, the information is stored with the Underground Storage Tank Branch in Frankfort, but access is given only with a payment of $34.25 per listing, according to spokesperson Angie Phillips. (As a policy, Cincy Business does not pay for a public record. The magazine is currently appealing the decision; look for a followup on abandoned gas stations in Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties in a future issue.)

Wherever you live, empty gas stations are a community challenge. “It’s a shame that what used to be energy pumps,” as one civic observer in Columbia-Tusculum puts it, “now desperately need a pump of energy.”