Chrysler Dealers React To Closures

Automaker seeking to close about a quarter of its 3,200 U.S. dealerships by early next month, saying network has too many stores competing with each other.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Chrysler LLC says it is seeking to close about a quarter of its 3,200 U.S. dealerships by early next month, saying the network is antiquated and has too many stores competing with each other. Here's a look at what dealers and community leaders in some affected towns and cities had to say about the move:

-- Seventeen of the 24 Chrysler dealerships in West Virginia are slated to be closed, a move the state's auto dealers' association says could eliminate about 235 jobs and force thousands of consumers to drive farther for the brand and service.

Paul's Auto Sales sits just outside Rainelle, population 1,500, and does not pay municipal taxes. But town Recorder Pete Adams said the loss of seven well-paying jobs in a town that has few will be noticed.

"A few jobs in this part of the country is considerable," he said. "Their employees live in this community and spend money here, and if they're not working, it's a hit to the economy."

-- Ed Green's grandfather started selling the cars more than 70 years ago. So Green was more than a little surprised to learn the family's dealership on the outskirts of Corpus Christi, Texas was among dealerships Chrysler wants to close.

"In the American Dream you're supposed to have the chance to succeed," Green said. "Yet we don't get a chance to go forward because they decided they needed someone bigger and prettier than we are."

"It's a form of discrimination," Green added. "It's a shame."

-- Rudy Sandoval, who owns the Sandoval Dodge dealership in Las Cruces, N.M. has been in business for 40 years in Las Cruces and 10 years in El Paso, Texas -- 50 years of loyalty to Dodge, he said.

"I've come to the end," said the 80-year-old Sandoval. "The man that makes the decisions is up in Detroit."

But Sandoval said he'll still keep the car fever, selling used cars and service.

"I'm not going to appeal the decision. The new car business is not what it used to be," he said. Sandoval employs 29 people at the dealership but will reduce his staff to around a dozen.

-- Four dealerships in Lehigh Valley, Pa., which includes the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, are slated to close. Auto sales are a major source of jobs in the Lehigh Valley, with 55 new-car dealerships employing nearly 2,800 people in the third quarter of 2008, according to state data.

"There's no way this region could escape the throes of a global recession," said Bob Wendt, an expert on the Lehigh Valley economy. "It's a tragedy and it's sad for the individuals involved."

Still, Wendt noted most of the targeted Chrysler dealerships occupy prime real estate, and he expressed optimism that their lots wouldn't stay vacant for long. He pointed out that Toyota recently announced plans to convert an old battery plant in Allentown -- on the same commercial strip where two of the Chrysler lots are located -- into a dealership that will sell hybrid cars.

-- Ed Schartman, who owns a Dodge dealership in suburban Cleveland, said the business gives a scholarship to a high school graduate in North Olmsted every year and provides cars for community parades. He vowed that wouldn't change even if they lost the Chrysler franchise.

"Do we intend to stay part of this community? Absolutely," he said.

New car sales are only a small part of Great Northern Dodge's business, which also has a body shop and service department. "We still have a lot of customers and we are going to be here for them," he said.

-- Christine Stickney, director of planning and community development in Braintree, Mass., a town of about 35,000 people south of Boston, said she has seen how the economy has affected South Shore Chrysler, another dealer slated to be closed.

The dealer paid $24,000 in property taxes during the last fiscal year.

"One of the things that we've become concerned with is losing any business from Braintree because commercial businesses are a major part of our tax base here in the town, beside the fact that they tend to be -- something like this dealership -- a local employer," Stickney said.

-- Larry Davis, general manager of Morong Brunswick, a small Volkswagen and Jeep dealership in Maine, could hardly contain his exasperation with the news.

The dealership, which dates to 1982, has sold, serviced and warranteed hundreds of Jeeps. Now he's left wondering how much assistance he'll get from Chrysler with his remaining 12 new Jeeps, as well as his parts inventory and specialized equipment.

"We don't cost them anything. When they ship a car, I write them a check. I don't cost them anything. And they want to shut me down?" he asked.

-- Bart Wolf, the general sales manager at Wolf's Motor Car Co. in Plymouth, Wis., estimated he donates an average of $10,000 a year for local high school and middle school events, supporting band trips and athletic activities.

"The way things are going now, that could be cut down to under $2,000," he said. "It's hard to say no to anyone, but this could make things tough."

Wolf sells a range of used cars along with new Chrysler and Jeep vehicles. He said his new car sales have been down, like those across the country, but his business was still strong enough to survive. He said he would fight to get off Chrysler's list but would persevere even if the decision stood.

"I imagine we'll ramp up our used-car business and our (automotive) services," Wolf said. "It's not going to be an easy road to go down, but we'll just reinvent ourselves."

-- The same family has owned Chicago's Balzekas Chrysler since 1933. On Thursday, like approximately 40 other dealerships in the state, Stanley Balzekas II opened a letter from Chrysler that said it is eliminating the dealership his father opened more than 75 years ago.

"Chrysler has been up and down through the years like many car manufactures," Balzekas said. "We always stayed with them. We don't run and it was a mistake."

Chrysler intends to shut down a third of the existing dealerships in Illinois.

"It'll affect everyone whether it is tax revenue or jobs, whether it's gas stations or baseball teams Chrysler has sponsored," John Shover, a bank president in Barry, a community of 1,400 in west-central Illinois where a sole Chrysler dealership is set to close.

-- Chrysler listed Maui's only Chrysler dealer, which does business as Island Dodge, is among those it wants to eliminate.

Island Dodge's general sales manager, Jim Wheeler, said the dealer hasn't been officially notified so he's not sure what will happen.

But the Kahului, Hawaii, dealer also sells Hondas and Subarus, as well as used cars, so Wheeler expects it to stay in business even if the dealership loses the Chrysler operation.

"We have other franchises too, so it's not like we're going to go away," Wheeler said.

-- In Wyoming, the owner of Riverton Chrysler Dodge Jeep, Jonathan Gunnison, said he plans to continue operations by selling used cars, parts and service. He said he doesn't plan to try to become a retailer for another auto company.

Dealers can appeal Chrysler's decision, but Gunnison said he's unlikely to pursue that course. He bought the dealership 23 years ago.

"I think it's like having your wife ask for a divorce -- if it comes to that, I really think it's probably better just to walk away from it," he said.

-- In Colorado, Northglenn Dodge owner David Fitzgerald said he was 11 when he started mowing the lawn at his father's dealership on the same site where he operates today. He doesn't know yet how many of his roughly 100 employees he might lose as he switches to selling solely used cars now that Chrysler's told him he's among at least a dozen dealerships in the state that it will shed.

"This is devastating to me," said Fitzgerald, 49. "But I have to continue on. All these people are looking to me for leadership. I'll turn into a puddle when I go home tonight when no one can see."

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