Dec. 12--You can see the construction signs and dirt mounds from Southwest College Road, but Frank DeLuca thinks the best way to show what's going on at his Toyota dealership is to view it from on high.
So DeLuca, in suit and tie, spry as he celebrates the 35th anniversary of DeLuca Toyota in Ocala, climbs a good 25 feet up a fire escape-type ladder between the service bays to the roof in the midday sun to show off what he calls "probably the mac daddy of all expansion plans in our community."
It's been a long time since DeLuca was a pioneering car dealer on State Road 200. The view from his rooftop takes in the landmark pyramid of Jenkins Hyundai and related dealerships, along with Honda of Ocala, Palm Chevrolet/Kia and Pearson Nissan along the highway.
Likewise, his isn't the only dealership planning to expand or to have done so already. Not all are on this stretch of Southwest College Road. Some are west of Interstate 75. Others are in south Marion County and targeting growth there -- especially in The Villages. One dealer has put a satellite location in the Belleview area and is eyeing a move from its longtime home on North U.S. 441.
A number of them talked to the Star-Banner about their plans.
Atop the roof, DeLuca decides he wants blueprints brought up to him, which creates a bit of a stir once the news gets back to employees at ground level.
"Mr. DeLuca is on the roof?" one said. "How did he get up there?"
The blueprints arrive, DeLuca gets a boost from an air-conditioning unit and then hoists himself to the highest roof level.
Similar to a tree's rings, geometric sections of the roof are varying shades of brownish gray and indicate the evolution of the dealership. DeLuca points to one dark rectangle, which he says housed the original shag-carpeted, two-car showroom in 1978. The dealership has since grown to 22,000 square feet.
Then DeLuca walks over to the edge of the building and shows what lies ahead: A construction crew moves dirt and works on the foundation of what DeLuca says will be a new 79,000-square-foot facility at the center of a 24.7-acre complex, to be built at a cost he puts at $15 million.
"We've really outgrown this facility," DeLuca said. "This is a store we used to sell 100 cars (per month) out of. We now sell 350 cars out of in the same facility.
"We'll be able to service the cars much faster and provide a lot more amenities to our customers," DeLuca said.
The fact that Marion County car dealers are planning to expand doesn't come as a surprise to Sean Snaith, economic forecaster and director of the Institute of Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida. He calls the performance of the auto industry as a whole "one of the brighter spots of the economic recovery."
Snaith said sales of light vehicles -- cars, SUVs and pickups -- have seen steady growth in recent years with "gaudy" year-over-year increases in sales nationwide of 1 million units or more in 2011 and 2012.
"A lot of it was driven, early on, by pent-up demand," Snaith said. "I think when we were going through the financial and housing crises of the Great Recession a lot of people, for a variety of reasons, deferred on new car purchases. You nurse along your old one until things get better or you find another job or find things stabilize at work and there's no more talk of layoffs."
Steve Hollosi, general manager of Ford of Ocala, said the dealership had plans for a new satellite dealership in south Marion County and bought property some 10 years ago, but tabled the move in 2007 as the economic crash began. This year, Ford of Ocala management felt satisfied enough that things were turning around to commence work on Village Ford on South U.S. 441 in Belleview. The $4.5 million facility opened in July, Hollosi said.
Ted Lindsay is general manager of Pearson Nissan on State Road 200 in Ocala, which got a $16 million renovation and expansion, which was completed in February. He credits the remodeled, 50,000-square-foot facility, along with the economy, for a 24 percent increase in sales and 20 percent increase in service orders since the remodeling.
"Unemployment is lower," Lindsay said. "More people have jobs. More people are spending money. We're just part of the mix, us and all of the good dealers in this town. We do our best to try and provide a truly exceptional experience."
Meanwhile the economic downturn lessened the expenses of expanding, according to Steve Treadway, general sales manager of Phillips Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge. The remodeled dealership on South U.S. 441 in Belleview opened in June with about 45,000 square feet of space, about triple the size of the original dealership built in 1968, he said.
"Construction costs are as low as they have been in a while," Treadway said. "It was time for us to give our customers, as far as a facility goes, something in line with the cars we represent."
First things first. The pyramid stays.
The building first occupied by a used-car dealer in the 1990s is too much of an Ocala landmark to tear down, says Cory Pool, vice president and partner in the Jenkins Auto Group, which includes Jenkins Hyundai of Ocala.
In the meantime, Jenkins Hyundai facilities including the pyramid are "just not big enough for us to service our customers properly," Pool said.
It does seem to be a bit of a tight squeeze at Jenkins Hyundai at the moment. Parking spaces are hard to come by on the wedge of land bordered by Martin Luther King Avenue and State Road 200. Pool shakes his head as he points at dents near the base of the Jenkins Hyundai sign marking the MLK entrance to the parking lot, apparently left by someone backing into it.
Inside the pyramid, showroom space leaves little room for staffers to have offices. Meanwhile, a service department in a neighboring building that appears to be doing brisk business has most of the seats in its waiting room occupied and a line some five people deep at the payment counter on a Monday afternoon.
Pool says Jenkins has slated the Hyundai dealership for a major overhaul targeted for completion in December 2014, including a 30,000 square-foot, climate-controlled service facility, with 35 to 40 service bays. To make room, Jenkins will pave over a retention pond and use it for car display. Meanwhile it plans to reconfigure the pyramid to maximize showroom space, while giving more employees offices and moving "non-customer-contact" parts of the dealership, like a conference room and employee break room, to a new second floor.
"It's going to be good for us, it's going to be good for our customers and we will be able to serve everybody for years to come as we sell more Hyundais," Pool said.
According to Pool, increased business, particularly on the service end, is a key reason for the expansion plan.
"The average used car right now is about 11 years old and that is driving people into service departments," Pool said. "When they get there, they're realizing that it might be better to go ahead and purchase a new vehicle and we're seeing a lot of that."
DeLuca says his dealership emphasizes service and it's a key part of his remodeling plan. Plans call for the new DeLuca facility to have 44 service bays, compared to the 18 in the current facility, with high-speed lifts and an "express" service.
"Without that service, the customer will not return," DeLuca said. "You can give them a car for cost and if you don't give them good service, that doesn't mean anything."
For Treadway at Phillips, remodeling has given the dealership the ability to handle more service customers, to have more parts on hand to get repairs done quicker and has also increased its showroom capacity, from some four vehicles before to between 16 and 18 now.
Question of location
Hollosi, at Ford of Ocala, has his eye on both expansion and relocation. The new Village Ford is open and up next is a proposed move of Ford of Ocala from its longtime home on North U.S. 441 to industrial property on Southwest 38th Avenue that had been home to Elster AMCO.
The dealership is requesting a zoning change from city of Ocala officials and a hearing is set for Tuesday, according to Hollosi. If that is successful, a new Ford of Ocala is scheduled to open sometime between spring and summer of 2015 at a cost he estimates at between $8 million and $10 million.
"We're fairly well established here but we are trying to get a bit more central location," he said. "A lot of our customers come over from the west side of (Interstate) 75, from the (State Road) 200 corridor around On Top of the World, as well as from this side of town. I think by us going there, we would be in a very easy access point from all locations."
The property in question is more than 90,000 square feet, according to Hollosi.
"If I were to build from scratch, I probably would only need about 55,000 to 60,000 square feet," Hollosi said. "But because it is already there and we can do the retrofit, we're going to pursue aggressively not only space for car and truck sales and service, but there are also opportunities there for RV service and heavier-duty product service, which is fairly lucrative."
Meanwhile, changes in Marion County traffic are giving dealerships a different sense of location, according to Kevin Eller, sales manager at Sullivan Buick/GMC/Cadillac. Case in point, Eller says, is the I-75 flyover, which lands at Southwest 43rd Street Road between Sullivan and BMW of Ocala.
"There's a lot of traffic coming down that road," he said. "When we originally built out here, that road wasn't there."
"Sales have improved and we need more room for more inventory," Eller said.
Sullivan is also scheduled to go before planning and zoning officials in hopes of expanding a lot behind the Buick dealership, according to Eller.
"There are some drainage issues we have to be conscientious of," he said. "The city of Ocala is helping us work through that process."
Treadway also sees the I-75 flyover and its extension connecting to Maricamp Road in east Ocala as a boon to Phillips' south Marion location.
"Make a right at the Sullivan store and you can be here in 10 minutes," he said.
DeLuca says his expansion plans are about more than just increasing sales and handling more service orders: He wants to create an experience for his customers, particularly those whose cars are being serviced.
As such, plans for the remodeled DeLuca Toyota include a cafe, a salon with hairstyling, barber and manicure services, a fenced area with trees for pet lovers, chair massages and a putting green.
The remodeled Pearson Nissan has three rooms in its customer lounge, according to Lindsay: a "quiet room," a more standard waiting area with TV and a play room for children.
Pool of Jenkins Auto Group says he believes in amenities as well -- to a point.
"We don't want to lose sight of our core business," he said.
(c)2013 the Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.)
Visit the Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.) at www.ocala.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: Marion car dealerships seeing era of expansion
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