‘Everything is up’

In recession’s wake, auto dealer sees opportunity along long-time ‘car alley’
Nov. 17, 2013 @ 07:04 PM

The number of car dealerships fell across the state during the recession, and the look of what David E. “Sport” Durst called Durham’s “car alley” on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard also changed.

But Durst said that has created opportunity for the dealerships that survived the downturn.

“There are fewer dealers that have the opportunity to sell more cars than they did before,” said Durst, the president and CEO of Sport Durst Millennium Automotive Group, a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram and Hyundai and Mazda vehicle dealership at 4511 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.

The company’s car sales have “exploded,” Durst said. In 2008 after the recession hit, the dealership sold maybe 150 cars in the year. Now, he said the dealership has volumes that he said are “unbelievable,” exceeding that amount in a month.

According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the total number of new-car dealerships in North Carolina was down 16 percent, or by 113 dealers, last year compared with 2007 totals. Across the nation, the total was down 15 percent.

Meanwhile, North Carolina new-car sales have been climbing since the bottom of the recession in 2009, said Robert Glaser, president N.C. Auto Dealers Association.

 “The interesting thing is, there are fewer dealerships, so you’re seeing a greater through-put,” Glaser said.

The average annual sales per dealership in North Carolina fell to 399 in 2009, but climbed to 638 last year, according to information from the California-based automotive valuation firm Kelley Blue Book.

As a sign of its increased business, Sport Durst has launched a $1.7 million renovation of its dealership on 12 acres on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, Durst said.

The project involved remodeling of the face and interiors of the buildings.

In addition, the company paid $3 million for a property down the road where European Performance Inc. does restoration work on Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi vehicles, according to property records.

Durst said he plans to sell vehicles priced below about $12,000 at the site and to do service work there.

Jimmy Elliason, the owner of European Performance Inc., said he’ll continue to operate his Durham business there until he finds a new location. He opened the Durham business in 2011 as an expansion of his Raleigh business, which launched in 1991.

Elliason paid about $1.5 million to buy the property off Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard from Ford Leasing Development Co., according to property records.

Previously, Michael Jordan Lincoln Mercury dealership operated at the site, but the location closed in 2009.  In 2011, Ford Motor Co. phased out its Mercury brand.

Durst said he’d been looking for land, and believes that Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard is centrally located, and has been the historic spot for car sales in Durham.

 “I think that this has always been considered ‘car row,’ and I think it will be for some time,” he said.

He acknowledged that the landscape has changed.  

The changes include a vacant building where the University GM Superstore was at the boulevard’s intersection with Shannon Road.

And what was a new Saturn dealership is now a franchise location of J.D. Byrider, a national used auto dealer. General Motors decided to discontinue its Saturn brand in 2009.

And across the road from Sport Durst’s dealership, Mark Jacobson Suzuki was converted into a Toyota Truck Center. American Suzuki Motor Corp. decided to discontinue new vehicle sales in the continental United States.

“The boulevard has changed quite a bit, but I think from the car business standpoint, I think this is where people come to look at cars,” Durst said. “I think it’s where they start anyway.”

He said he believes that his company was a smaller, leaner organization during the recession, and that helped it to survive.  

“Everything is up,” he said of business now. “It is amazing the difference four years can make.”