Lots of adversity

Ashland's auto dealerships aren't asking Congress for a bailout — even though they could use one.

As Washington grapples with whether to give federal aid to Detroit's Big Three, Ashland's three car lots — TC Chevy, Butler Automotive Group and Ashland Motor Company — on Highway 99 are seeing sales slow as the economy hits speed bumps, owners at the local companies said.

TC Chevy, formerly called Town and Country Chevrolet, is on track to sell five to 10 fewer cars, or as much as 20 percent less, this month than the same time last year, Karl Blust, general manager, said Friday.

"I think it's not just car dealerships," said Alan DeBoer, former Ashland mayor and owner of TC Chevy. "I think it's the whole economy. I mean, it's a scary time to be out there in business.

"If we could sell 10 more cars a month, that'd make all the difference in the world."

Ashland Motor Company, which sells used cars, has seen a 15 to 20 percent drop in sales in the last six months, the biggest decline in the five years Bob Thomas and his brother John Thomas have owned the dealership, Bob Thomas said last week.

And at Butler Automotive Group, which sells Fords and Acuras in Ashland, co-owner Warren Cooper expects November sales to be down as much as 25 percent compared to the same month last year, he said Friday. The company has already laid off "a few" people because of the revenue decrease, he said.

"Right now it's tough," Cooper said. "The ability to get money, for customers, is definitely tighter."

The dealership is the only one in town offering in-house financing, which allows some buyers who have been turned down for bank loans to get credit through the automotive group.

While dealers at Ashland Motor Company said their customers haven't had trouble getting car loans, several TC Chevy customers have been turned down by banks in recent months, according to Blust.

"We've had some issues with what I feel were very, very good credit customers and the banks being very stingy on their approvals. So that's caused some sales not to happen," he said.

Prices on new cars are the lowest Blust has ever seen, the 25-year industry veteran said. TC Chevy, like all General Motors dealerships, is offering big sales and rebates on new cars through Jan. 2 to help clear out inventory.

Sales have increased slightly in the past two weeks, but are still below average at the lot, leading the company to not to fill some open positions, Blust said.

"It's not enough. We'd like to be selling more, but it's OK. We just do what we can," he said.

Ashland Motor Company probably hasn't seen its sales slump as much as some dealerships because it sells mostly imported, used vehicles, Bob Thomas said.

"There's a certain part of the market that just wants to buy used," he said.

Cars that cost less than $15,000 are selling much better than more expensive ones, Blust said.

Prices on Fords are the lowest they've been in at least five years at Butler Automotive Group and the company hopes business will pick up during the holiday season, Cooper said.

All of the local dealers said they are watching news on the Big Three closely, to see what will happen to the industry.

"I don't think at this point it's affecting Ashland," said DeBoer. "But certainly if we lost one of our dealerships in Ashland, that would affect the schools, affect donations, affect far more than we could even imagine."

DeBoer said people should invest in American-made cars to support the workers and stimulate the economy.

"The price of gasoline jumped and I think people lost confidence in the economy and I think what you do now is go spend some money," he said.

Most locals, however, are buying cars only out of necessity, according to Blust.

"In terms of regular people who go out and buy cars, if they financially can still buy a car and they need a car, they're going to come in and buy one. Others who have lost their jobs are having to hold off," he said.

Such was the case with Gretchen Lee, who was shopping for a "newer car" at Ashland Automotive Group on Friday.

"I need a car, so that's why I'm buying it. It's not because of the economy," she said.

Staff writer Hannah Guzik can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226.

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