The lumpy landscape of eastern Ohio, near the small city of Zanesville, doesn’t offer much in the way of urbanization, certainly not compared to the far more industrialized, flat, western half of the state. So motorists traveling along Interstate 70 must be strategic about where they go to tank up, both their car and their stomachs. To anyone navigating throughout the eastern half of the US, particularly the Great Lakes States, it goes without saying that Love’s Travel Stop has ascended in visibility to become a roadside fixture. This chain typically offers well-maintained convenience, gas, and restroom facilities, along with the rudiments of a truck stop that meet many truckers’ needs (showers, overnight parking). Love’s even provides some wonkier features for independent trucking contractors, like freight factoring, without ever appearing so vast or congested to scare away conventional passenger vehicles.
Many Love’s locations also have an independent, nationally recognized fast-food restaurant leasing space directly abutting the convenience store.
Amidst all these amenities, the Zanesville branch of Love’s offered one clear surprise:
Up the hill, just two hundred feet away from the parking lot, is a small dog park. It’s nothing grand, though it’s larger than the one I covered a few weeks ago in Silver Spring, just outside Washington DC. From what I can tell, it featured a few trash cans, a receptacle for cigarettes, pet waste baggies, and some picnic tables.
Though it would hardly meet the standard of a top-tier dog park in a densely populated urban center, the Love’s version provides more than ample space for a pet to meander and sniff around unleashed, which is likely a necessity for many travelers going long distances with their canines. Needless to say, a fenced-in area is essential if the pet-parents want to allow some off-leash play time; the proximity of most travel stops to a busy interstate highway would pose a great hazard for rambunctious dogs. Perhaps most telling, however, is that I see no evidence that Love’s Travel Stop has monetized this feature; it’s a free perk available to any passers-by who chose to use it, with no special privileges conferred to members of the My Love Rewards program.
Executive leadership at Love’s Travel Stop have undoubtedly found that critical balance between promoting an amenity that confers value to the company—they offer a product that most competitors don’t—but without it costing considerable money to administrate or maintain. A closer visit to the dog park hints at the strategy:
I’m not sufficiently legally well-versed to understand the exculpatory difference between a signed waiver form and the white sign on this gate (“Not responsible for accidents or injuries”), but perhaps because this dog park does not involve a financial transaction (which is a contract in and of itself), the user assumes all responsibility, in the event of a mishap among Homo sapiens or Canis familiaris. In the absence of any liability, all the management at this Zanesville Love’s has to do is empty trash, mow the grass, and occasionally pick up the poo. I saw no water dispenser, which would undoubtedly cost money to extend plumbing out to the site, and the likelihood that such pipes are susceptible to climate variation could cause expensive freezing and bursting during the winter months. It has no play features; those tend to wear down quickly. And since it’s not a destination of itself—rather a feature people use while filling their cars (or big rigs) and gorging on fried food sitting under a heat lamp—it’s unlikely this dog park ever hosts more than 3 or 4 dogs simultaneously.
It’s good enough. And it’s obviously a low-key fixture for which Love’s Travel Stop could absorb the cost, given the generally inexpensive price of land in rural, agricultural areas, particularly when the exit ramps aren’t particularly busy or crowded. (Love’s tends to choose small, low-intensity interstate exits with few other commercial uses nearby, making it the big kid in town.) A few hundred additional square feet for a chain-link fence are marginal when one considers the vast amount of land used for impervious surfaces to support parking for tractor trailers. And the dog park endows Love’s and its roadside competitors with an additional feather in their caps compared to state-funded rest areas. For years, rest areas were the most reliable place for potable water, picnic areas, 24/7 access, clean and well-stocked restrooms, and, if necessary, overnight parking for a reasonable number of tractor trailers. But, outside of toll roads, public rest areas rarely offer gas or much food outside of the contents of a vending machine. And though many gas stations notoriously give spotty maintenance to their restrooms at best, the all-purpose travel stops like Love’s routinely keep their indoor facilities at a high standard of cleanliness and repair. Public rest areas might be more aesthetic, greener and less paved, sometimes featuring a small (or not so small) park-like setting, but they haven’t yet caught up with the private sector on accommodating dogs.
Amidst the abundance of websites and smart phone apps helping dog-owners travel more comfortably with their best friends, I see little evidence of public rest areas that specifically offer fenced-in play spaces for pooches. The increasingly plush conditions and abundance of offerings at privately managed travel stops has made it hard for the public sector compete; a growing number of states have shuttered their less-used rest areas, concentrating activity through Welcome Centers close to the state lines (often staffed with well-informed guides), or closing three proximal small rest areas to consolidate demand into one large, immaculate super-area. But these budget-saving measures still suggest a losing battle. Little did I know until encountering the Zanesville branch, but dog parks are hardly a rarity at Love’s Travel Stops; the user-friendly database on its website reveals 230 dog parks at various Love’s locations scattered across the country, at the time of this post. Keeping these factors in mind, along with the fact that Love’s offers empanadas, kolaches, and burgers on brioche buns, the question isn’t so much how should the public sector compete…but why should it?