Chris Parker had two choices when she was choosing the gas provider for the Marshfield Senior Center in Missouri. One was the subsidiary of a utility company based 800 miles away. The other had its headquarters about four blocks down.
For Parker, the senior center’s administrator, the personal connection made it an easy decision to go with local propane provider Brooks Gas over the natural gas utility. “They wanted our business,” she says. “They were local. They were really good to us.”
Marshfield Senior Center’s story underscores the idea that local relationships matter when it comes to energy decisions, just as they do anytime a business or organization makes a purchasing decision. And particularly in small towns and rural areas throughout the United States, propane companies often have deep roots in their communities. Brooks Gas has made its home in Marshfield, Missouri (population of about 6,600) for more than 70 years, exemplifying the service that a small-town family business can provide.
Parker developed the relationship with Brooks Gas several years ago when the Marshfield Senior Center was in an older building. The center, which serves hot meals to seniors Monday–Friday in addition to sending out 1,500 meals to homebound seniors, received a grant to upgrade to a gas range. “We used to have an old electric one, and it was so old, it wouldn’t even boil water,” Parker says.
The old building used natural gas for its heating, but the natural gas company had an exorbitant fee to hook up the new gas range. Parker called Brooks Gas for a second look. “Brooks said, ‘Sure, we’ll do it,’” Parker says, and the propane company quickly had the new range hooked up. “They set up the tank and everything. They were fantastic.”
A new Marshfield Senior Center
That superior service is what led Parker to get a bid from Brooks Gas when the Marshfield Senior Center moved into a new building in 2018. The new 10,000-square-foot facility serves as a huge upgrade from its previous 2,300-square-foot space and includes a full commercial kitchen and new rooms for games, exercise, meetings, classes, and personal services such as Medicare counseling or tax prep.
Brooks Gas was involved from the start in supporting the construction of the new facility. John Brooks, a member of the Brooks Gas management team, sits on the board of the community housing organization that provided the land for the facility. And Brooks Gas also made large donations to the project, as well as donating a fireplace and propane tank. “Everybody in the community was raising what they could,” says Brooks, who has lived in Marshfield all his life and whose grandfather first started the propane company. “They needed a new facility. They had outgrown what they had, and the facilities were out of date and just cobbled together.”
While natural gas is available at the new site, Parker asked for bids from both the gas utility and Brooks Gas because the propane company had treated them so well in the past.
“And Brooks just made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Parker says. “Plus, personally I would rather deal with local people who are right here and easy to deal with. The natural gas company is not.” But while she considered both natural gas and propane, going all-electric was never a consideration. The facility uses propane to fuel its space heating, water heating, a centerpiece fireplace, and the commercial-grade cooking equipment.
Brooks Gas hearth products manager Brian Brooks helped Parker select the fireplace, a beautiful two-sided unit that serves as a gathering spot for both the library and the dining room. “It just gives a nice ambience to the building, especially if we have a fundraiser or something in the evening,” she says. “People just love it. We have chairs seated around it. They’ll sit there and visit in the afternoon in the wintertime and not feel like they’re being rushed out like you would in a restaurant.” It’s also a feature that would never be used if it required the maintenance and cleanup of wood, Parker says.
The propane is equally critical in the upgraded commercial kitchen, which employs two cooks, a dishwasher, and various volunteers. The kitchen serves an average of 60 meals per day — sometimes many more — in addition to the meals for homebound seniors. It features a six-burner range and two ovens fueled by propane. “I think you have so much more control over your heat and everything when you have gas,” Parker says. She’s thrilled to be rid of the facility’s original electric range.
The kitchen also has a large commercial dishwasher and a three-compartment sink, which makes the high recovery rate of the propane water heating a valuable feature. “It’s state of the art,” Parker says of the water heater. “I just know it works. We get a lot of nice hot water out of it.” Likewise, she enjoys the comfort of the warmer heat produced by the facility’s propane furnace.
A resilient gathering space
Next on the priority list is a propane generator. Parker already has a spot picked out and is raising funds to purchase the unit, which would protect the building’s commercial refrigerators and freezers in the event of a power outage during an ice storm. “We want to keep that food good because there’s thousands of dollars of food in there,” Parker says.
The new building also features a safe room in the lower level that provides a safe space for seniors to go in an emergency — a feature that was part of the deal that made the land purchase for the facility possible. The safe room has already been used by about 40 people when a tornado passed just north of town. A generator would make the building even more resilient. “If anyone was to take shelter down there, we’d probably need to keep the air and the lights on,” Parker says.
Parker takes pride in the way the Marshfield community came together to support the construction of the new senior center, and the Brooks family is a perfect example. “It’s not the only reason we went with them, but they just have been hugely supportive of us,” Parker says.
To John Brooks, the relationship is a validation of Brooks Gas’ commitment to service and developing trust with business and organization leaders throughout the community. Other buildings in Marshfield, including the school buildings, have continued using propane even after natural gas became available because of the quick, responsive service the company provides.
“If people step back and take a look, they’ll find out how much value there is in having a local propane company,” John Brooks says. “We’re just a different fuel. We’re part of the community.” Their lasting relationship with the Marshfield Senior Center exemplifies the value that organizations can find by going local — even when it comes to energy.