Dealers plan one-stop auto center

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald July 10, 2009 02:06 pm
Gentry Ford and Powder River Motors will move east of I-84 in the next two years

Editor’s Note: The Baker City Herald is chronicling changes taking place on “The Other Side of the Freeway” — the commercial area east of Interstate 84. The series started in the July 3 edition with a look at the recent move and expansion of Grumpy’s Repair. The series continued July 6 with Blue-Collar Baker. Today’s installment reports on auto dealerships planning to move to the other side of the freeway. The series concludes July 17 with a look at plans for mixed use commercial and light industrial businesses, along with high- and low density housing.

Two Baker City auto dealerships are spending between $2 million and $3 million to develop a combined show room, car lot and shop on the other side of the freeway.

“We’re buying 11 acres on the other side of the freeway between the Super 8 Motel and the (United Parcel Service) facility,” said Dennis Wright, general manager and part owner of Gentry Ford on Main Street and Powder River Motors on 10th Street in Baker City. “Our hope in the next two years is to combine all of our dealerships out there.”

“We are in the process of getting the building plans approved by the (vehicle) manufacturers,” Wright said.

Every auto manufacturer has specific design criteria for showrooms, lots, shops, signs and other features, so it takes time to work out a one-stop auto dealership with vehicles made by multiple manufacturers, Wright said.

Once officials from Ford, Subaru and Chrysler approve the design criteria, Wright said construction drawings can be finalized, with a goal of completing the building and moving the dealerships east of the freeway over the next two years.

Don Chance, Baker City planning director, said the auto dealerships fit in with the types of commercial businesses allowed east of the freeway under the city’s comprehensive plan and development codes.

Relocating the auto dealerships near the freeway would likely benefit the downtown business district by opening up a large chunk of ground for development of a two-story department store, which is something Chance said the downtown area is lacking.

The building and parking lots currently occupied by the auto dealerships on Main Street and 10th Street would make excellent sites for city parks, landscaped open space or parking lots, Chance said.

He also pointed out that the downtown area is not ideal for automotive maintenance shops, lube shops and other ancillary businesses that typically sprout up around car dealerships. The area east of the freeway is better suited for such firms, Chance said.

“If you end up with big box stores and malls around the freeway interchanges, that would draw a lot of local customers and sap the energy out of the downtown district,” Chance said.

On the other hand, Chance said the mix of auto dealers and other commercial and light industrial businesses, along with some high density and low density housing projects proposed for the other side of the freeway, are likely draw travelers off the Interstate and into the downtown area to shop, dine out and explore.

Chance said the city has submitted development code modifications — given preliminary approval by the planning commission and City Council — to the state Department of Land Conservation and Development for review.

“We’ve gotten some comments back from DLCD and will be making some minor revisions to address those comments,” he said.

Once those changes have been made, Chance said he will submit the final development code changes to public review and final approval by the City Council.

“I expect it will take 60 to 90 days to complete the approval process,” Chance said.

Wright said he and partner Ryan Gentry envisioned moving the auto dealerships to the east side of the freeway when they bought them from Don Phillips (Ford dealership) in 2002 and Jay Raffety (Chrysler dealership) in 2006.

Employment at both dealerships totals about 30 people. Wright said combining the showroom, shop and sales lots on the other side of the freeway will created opportunities to improve efficiency and eliminate duplication.

The consolidation and move to the area north of Campbell Street is also expected to result in improved customer service, while creating a more fun and convenient experience for customers.

“We’re looking at about 20,000 square feet for the shop and showroom building,” Wright said.    

In working toward developing a one-stop auto center, Wright said he and Gentry purchased seven acres of freeway frontage property from Black Bear Inc. of Seattle in 2007.

On Tuesday, Wright confirmed they are in the process of exercising an option to purchase another four acres from Brent Gyllenberg, bringing the total to 11 acres they’ll own between the Super 8 Motel on East Campbell Street and the UPS center near the corner of Best Frontage Road and H Street.

“My understanding is that Gyllenberg and the city will be building a new diagonal road with an entrance on Campbell Street, east of the Super 8 Motel. The road will cut diagonally across the field and tie into Best Frontage Road,” Wright said. “When the new road is completed it will run right in front of our dealership and extend all the way out to the next exit.”

The new showroom, shop and car lot would take up about four acres. Wright said the other seven acres will be available for restaurants, light manufacturers, distributing companies or other businesses capable of providing family-wage jobs.

“We’ve got more land than we need for the dealerships. We hope to bring more businesses out there. Some restaurants would be nice, but from a growth standpoint, what we really need is family wage jobs,” Wright said.

Wright said the stability of Baker City auto sales in the face of the economic downturn played a role in the decision to move ahead with plans to construct a multiple-brand, one-stop auto center on the other side of the freeway.

While auto sales in some other parts of the country have reportedly plunged as much as 30 to 40 percent since the recession hit last summer, Wright said car and truck sales have been steady to slightly up in Baker City.

“We haven’t experienced the big growth like Boise and some other areas, but that’s OK, because we didn’t have as far to fall either,” Wright said.

“Baker has been somewhat isolated from some of the massive hits metro areas have taken over the last nine months,” Wright said. “Most of the people who had jobs in Baker two or three years ago still do.”

While Baker may never see a big boom, Wright said tourists and business owners looking to get away from urban life are discovering everything the Baker City area has to offer, making it more of a regional hub as envisioned under the Base Camp Baker marketing campaign.

“There’s real potential for growth in Baker City, especially in the area east of the freeway,” Wright said. “All the infrastructure is in place.”

“Baker is the kind of small town people are looking for to relocate or build light manufacturing businesses and distribution centers,” Wright said.

It’s also centrally located, with shipping costs by train or truck between Baker City to San Francisco on par with shipping costs from bigger cities like Portland, Spokane or Boise.

While moving Gentry Ford out of the downtown area will create a void, Wright said it also opens the door to all kinds of possibilities to enhance the historic downtown area.

“We don’t want to take anything away from downtown,” Wright said.

In addition to the 11 acres, Wright said there’s still lots of property east of the freeway available for commercial development from the Gyllenberg family, property owners Greg Sackos, Alex Sackos, the Bootsma family and others.