April 1, 2000: Headlines: COS - India: Business: Oil Companies: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: At 21, Darshan Dhaliwal met a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke of American customs that seemed unbelievably refreshing: moving out of the house at 18, dating who you like, going out to parties. Dhaliwal was hooked. He soon applied for admission to the United States, packed a suitcase and left with "a few bucks" in his pocket.

Peace Corps Online: Directory: India: Peace Corps India: The Peace Corps in India: April 1, 2000: Headlines: COS - India: Business: Oil Companies: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: At 21, Darshan Dhaliwal met a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke of American customs that seemed unbelievably refreshing: moving out of the house at 18, dating who you like, going out to parties. Dhaliwal was hooked. He soon applied for admission to the United States, packed a suitcase and left with "a few bucks" in his pocket.

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-245-37.balt.east.verizon.net - on Sunday, June 26, 2005 - 2:49 pm: Edit Post

At 21, Darshan Dhaliwal met a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke of American customs that seemed unbelievably refreshing: moving out of the house at 18, dating who you like, going out to parties. Dhaliwal was hooked. He soon applied for admission to the United States, packed a suitcase and left with "a few bucks" in his pocket.

At 21, Darshan Dhaliwal met a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke of American customs that seemed unbelievably refreshing: moving out of the house at 18, dating who you like, going out to parties. Dhaliwal was hooked. He soon applied for admission to the United States, packed a suitcase and left with a few bucks in his pocket.

At 21, Darshan Dhaliwal met a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke of American customs that seemed unbelievably refreshing: moving out of the house at 18, dating who you like, going out to parties. Dhaliwal was hooked. He soon applied for admission to the United States, packed a suitcase and left with "a few bucks" in his pocket.

Priming the pump for controversy
By Vikki Ortiz
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: April 1, 2000

Mequon - In a conference room at the headquarters of his multimillion dollar gas station empire, Darshan Dhaliwal slouches over, elbows on the table, frowning face resting in his hands.

Bulk Petroleum Corp. owns hundreds of gas stations in eight states. Its 49-year-old owner makes huge contributions to political candidates, community groups and religious organizations. He and his wife, Debra, and their children live in a six-bedroom home in Mequon. There's even a four-bedroom guesthouse out back.
The Citgo gas station at W. Capitol Drive and N. Sherman Blvd. has become a hot topic in the neighborhood. Some residents say the station is a magnet for troublemakers and should be shut down. The station's owner, Darshan Dhaliwal, says closing his station will just shift the problem elsewhere.

And yet, Dhaliwal closes his eyes and rubs his temples as if in pain.

He is consumed with the controversy surrounding one of his Milwaukee gas stations - the Citgo at W. Capitol Drive and N. Sherman Blvd. A neighborhood group has been working to convince city leaders to close the station because young troublemakers hang out there, disrupting the traffic and tranquility at the north side intersection. The situation has become the first test of a city ordinance designed to put more power in the hands of residents dealing with neighborhood problems.

In the process, it has put Dhaliwal's faith in the cherished freedoms of America to the test.

In newspapers, on television and on the radio, Dhaliwal's name has come up in discussions of youth violence, the free market system, the influence of campaign contributions, even prejudice. To some, he is an uncooperative businessman with little regard for a neighborhood where he makes his money. To others, he is a victim of misguided anger that should be targeted at police for their inability to keep control, or out-of-control youths for creating the problems in the first place.

"I just don't feel right," Dhaliwal says. "I'm disappointed."

America Beckons

Born and raised in Rakhra, a village of 500 people in India, Dhaliwal was the dutiful eldest son of a successful rice, cotton, wheat and sugar cane farmer. He grew up spending long days with his feet submerged in water, planting his father's basmati rice fields.

The farm was successful, and he and his two younger brothers accepted the responsibilities that came with the family business. When he was old enough, he attended college at Government Rapduman College in Nabha, a larger neighboring community. After class, he came home and worked.

"Farming is a hard life anyplace," Dhaliwal says.

At 21, Dhaliwal met a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke of American customs that seemed unbelievably refreshing: moving out of the house at 18, dating who you like, going out to parties.

Dhaliwal was hooked. He soon applied for admission to the United States, packed a suitcase and left with "a few bucks" in his pocket. He made his way to North Dakota and then took a bus trip that made a stop in Milwaukee. Someone he knew gave him a tour and Dhaliwal decided he was in "God's country." He felt comfortable knowing there were Indian grocery stores, there was a Sikh house of worship, there were even places to rent Indian movies. The people were friendly, the nearby rural areas beautiful.

Dhaliwal never used the rest of his bus ticket.

"(In North Dakota), I was the only Indian. Over here, I could talk my own language," Dhaliwal says. "I liked it and I just stayed down."

In 1974, Dhaliwal met Debra, a third-generation Wisconsinite from Little Chute. With roots in Holland, Debra was like no one he could have met or married in India. They fell in love and married two years later.

For the next few years, Dhaliwal worked odd jobs - delivering pizzas, operating a bakery fryer - as he and Debra, a nurse at a family clinic, saved their money. Dhaliwal still wasn't sure what type of business to go into, but he knew he wanted to be in charge. He didn't want to answer to anyone.

Prem Sharma, a retired associate dean at Marquette University, recalls getting to know Dhaliwal about that time. Dhaliwal had been working for an hourly wage at a brewery, and had been offered a salaried position. He asked Sharma whether to take it or strike out on his own.

Sharma thought Dhaliwal would do well independently.

"He impressed me as a young entrepreneurial type of individual and I felt that he would do well," Sharma says.

In 1977, Dhaliwal leased a gas station at N. 35th St. and W. Garfield Ave. for $300 a month. He taught himself to change oil and do other simple mechanical procedures, then began manning the station by himself. He would work on a car, run out to pump gas, run back to work on the car, and on and on, back and forth, for hours.

It was also during this time that he and his wife had their first child, a son, Jespal. During his 16- or 17-hour workdays, Dhaliwal sometimes would hold "Jessie" in one hand and pump gas with the other.

"I enjoyed hard work," he says. "I learned one thing - that hard work always pays."

In 1979, Dhaliwal had saved $30,000, enough to buy his first gas station at N. 17th St. and W. North Ave. In his native language, when a person goes to see somebody very important, they say they are going to see their "Darshan." Dhaliwal named his station: Darshan's Gas.

Dhaliwal sold the station the same year and bought two others. The next year he bought a half-dozen more. For the next six years, he bought two gas stations a year, and in 1986, he bought 50 stations spread across Illinois, Indiana and Michigan from Chevron. Today, Dhaliwal won't say how many stations his privately held company owns, but he acknowledges he has at least 50 each in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado.

"In many ways, to me, his success reflects the very basics of this great country which allows people from all over the world to come and share the 'American Dream,'" says Sharma. "His success, in a way, is a tribute to the United States."

"God has been good to me and I'm thankful," is all Dhaliwal says, and then he changes the subject.

Helping Out

What Dhaliwal does like to talk about is what he's done with the money he's made from his business. He sponsors the Fourth of July fireworks each year in Mequon. He spent $1 million setting up a chair at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a professor familiar with Indian culture. He says he has donated to every Sikh house of worship in the country, and to causes affiliated with other religions. He contributed $100,000 for a soccer park used by the Mequon United Soccer Club and donates $7,500 a year to the organization.

"Did I tell you I built a house for Habitat for Humanity in the inner city?" Dhaliwal asks, running through a mental list of his contributions.

His need for people to know about his non-work activities does not always impress.

"If somebody else wants to organize something, he will try to overdo it to show he's the only one," says Jay Walia, a fellow member of the Indian community in Milwaukee. "If somebody else in the community wants to do something, he feels threatened easily."

Dhaliwal also contributes to politicians, a practice that has become a point of contention in the swirl around the Citgo station.

Last year, the Four-Sher Block Club filed a formal complaint with the city saying the gas station was a magnet for cruisers and troublemakers. The group argues that Dhaliwal should be forced to shut the station down under the new ordinance, which allows the council to declare food stores, gas stations and other such businesses a public nuisance based on the activities that go on around them. The Citgo had become so legendary that north siders call it "Club Citgo."

The council has yet to make a final ruling on the issue. In February, a Common Council committee recommended the gas station be shut down for 10 days to allow the Board of Zoning Appeals to consider requiring it to close between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. for a year. Two weeks ago, the Common Council kicked the recommendation back to the Utilities and Licenses Committee after Dhaliwal agreed to change the hours on his own.

"You give some and we'll give some and we'll all work together," Dhaliwal told residents at the time.

Last week, that committee decided to do nothing more for now, and see how a new round of discussions between neighbors and Dhaliwal works out.

People who have worked with Dhaliwal in other capacities say his nature is to find some agreement. "I have found the guy truly - and I mean this - . . . someone who is willing to go the extra mile to see both sides of a viewpoint and go toward, work toward, amicable solutions," says Scott Engroff, president of the Mequon United Soccer Club.

But some Sherman Park residents remain wary.

Dhaliwal and his wife contributed $635 to the campaign of Ald. George Butler, the Common Council member who originally wrote the ordinance they were seeking to use. But as a member of the Utilities and Licenses Committee, Butler voted against the 10-day suspension recommendation, and a couple of weeks ago announced hopes of creating a more "universal" ordinance that would close all gas stations between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

A cartoon being circulated around City Hall late last month showed Butler sitting in his office with Dhaliwal's picture behind him on a wall. In the cartoon, paid for by supporters of Rosa Cameron-Rollins, Butler's challenger, residents wait outside the office while Dhaliwal stands inside, throwing money around.

"Is our community for sale?" the cartoon asks.

Butler says it is not. He contends he wrote the original ordinance to give neighborhoods a weapon to use against uncooperative business owners. But Dhaliwal, he argues, has made efforts to help, and the Sherman Park area needs that Citgo. Shutting it down would be unfair and unproductive, Butler says.

"If that station closes down today completely, totally, do you think that come this summer those kids won't find another gas station to go (to)?" he asks.

Dhaliwal himself insists his political contributions have nothing to do with the Citgo station issue. His contributions to local aldermen are no different than his contributions to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Police Athletic League and other causes, he contends. Dhaliwal says his gifts are investments in the community that made him a millionaire.

He says he cannot understand how closing one station will change the reckless habits of young people. The solution should not be to limit the business of a private person, but rather to create activities and havens for the young people causing trouble. He also stresses that the person who leases the station from him, Amarjit Singh, would actually be the one hurt by any curb on the station, not Dhaliwal.

"It's not one gas station's problem; it's the community's problem," Dhaliwal says, adding that he would be willing to donate money if someone developed a new evening hangout for teens. "I started out in that neighborhood and I feel I am part of those people. I started there and I still have my heart there."

Questioning His Response

Nevertheless, Kenneth Green, one of the leaders of the Four-Sher Block Club, said he and other neighborhood leaders asked on numerous occasions to meet with Dhaliwal about their concerns with graffiti, loitering, drug dealing and other problems at the Citgo station. Dhaliwal never responded, Green says.

"It was never our intention to actually go and close this guy down, but our backs were somewhat up against a wall when he refused to work with us," Green says.

Ald. Willie Hines, who represents a district that also has stations owned by Dhaliwal, says Dhaliwal never answered a letter asking to help address the problems. Hines says it was evidence the city had reason to step in to fix the situation.

"I just felt that either the neighborhood wasn't being taken seriously," or Dhaliwal was not being compassionate, Hines says.

Dhaliwal contends he never received Hines' letter, and that he has worked to address the neighbors' concerns. Last month, he sent a letter to each of the lessees at his 22 Milwaukee gas stations, asking them to stop selling roses with glass tubes, small scales, cigarette papers and Blunt cigars - all items that were known to be purchased for drug use.

The real problem, Dhaliwal says, is not that he won't cooperate, but rather that the neighborhood groups are asking too much of him. He can't understand why neighbors are singling him out as an owner, and not asking other area gas stations to comply.

A meeting with residents is now set for April 11.

Prejudicial Concerns

And then there is the issue of prejudice.

Butler acknowledges that the Indian ancestry of people at the Citgo station comes up in meetings. Even the cartoon shows Dhaliwal inside Butler's office wearing a turban, while one of the characters on the outside is wearing a yarmulke and another is wearing a clerical collar. A "small faction" of people, Butler says, are bitter than another minority group controls so many businesses in a predominantly black part of Milwaukee.

Dhaliwal won't talk about it. He was upset when an official at Bulk Petroleum was quoted as saying he worried that Citgo's neighbors were thinking: "We want the rich guy with the turban out of here."

Dhaliwal says: "I don't want to think about it. People have come in here and told me, it's been brought up, but I don't want to think about it."

Three weeks ago, another group of residents visited Dhaliwal at his Mequon office. The group was concerned about the Gas & Go Mini Mart at 3308 W. Vliet St., which he owns and leases out. They presented him with a list of 15 requirements to avoid a lawsuit. Dhaliwal agreed to 13 of them - from a new sign reflecting the neighborhood's image to hiring a uniformed security guard until the building is cleaned up.

The two points he refused to agree to were removing pay telephones and restricting hours to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Dhaliwal says he would be willing to discuss those further, but he believes the steps would hurt the surrounding community.

Two days later, the neighborhood faxed Dhaliwal a letter saying his response was insufficient. Following the lead of the Four-Sher Block club, the second neighborhood group says it plans to oppose the license renewal of the Gas & Go.

Dhaliwal sits at his conference table, reads the fax and closes his eyes. He is in anguish again.

"That was one of the reasons of coming to this country is the freedom," says Dhaliwal. "I don't think they're being fair to me."

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Story Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - India; Business; Oil Companies


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