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Dealers struggling, but are optimistic

While the struggles of the big three automakers make national headlines day after day, Cairo’s two major auto dealerships are hopeful and even optimistic their business will soon turn around for the better.
“This has been the roughest year since I’ve been working at Stallings Motors as far as sales goes. Until last month, I’d say we were off 30 percent from our highs,” says Sam Carnline, owner of Stallings Motors, “since gas prices have gone down, though, we’ve seen an increase in sales. We had a good month last month. I’m optimistic.”
“We are trying hard in this tough economy. I have to say, this is a great time to buy a car. Rebates are good, interest rates are low. Customers can get a great deal,” says Bob Hobson, who bought out his partner Bruce Thomas last month and now owns outright the dealership where he has served the last six years as general manager, Thomas of Cairo.
The plight of car dealerships and all industries associated, such as parts manufacturers like Cairo’s Timken, to gasoline stations and parts’ businesses, is a worry for many local communities across the nation. The New York Times put a face to this concern on its front page Sunday, Nov. 30, when it featured Bruce Thomas and his efforts to stay in business. Unfortunately, those efforts ended two weeks ago, though, when Thomas sold his Cairo Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac franchise to Hobson. He also sold his Quincy, Fla., Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep franchise and closed his Quincy GM store. The Times’ article pointed out the impact dealerships have on local communities, from charitable giving to tax revenue.
Cairo Mayor Richard VanLandingham says car dealerships, like many other businesses, are important to a community. “They always seem to be willing to support the community in lots of different ways. They donate cars for parades. In general they support the community, probably more so than others,” VanLandingham says.
In fact, Stallings Motors donates a vehicle for Grady County’s teacher of the year to drive for the year, and recently donated a van to the local meals on wheels program. Carnline says it is not unusual for his business to have upwards of $20,000 in charitable giving a year. Likewise at Thomas of Cairo, which supports Grady County schools, too. Hobson says he is also proud to support the county recreation department’s baseball program by donating equipment, bats, balls and t-shirts. Those are only a few examples of how these businesses help those in need. Poor sales, though, impact the ability of those businesses to continue giving things away.
The impact of dealerships on local economies is also great. Although the Grady County Tax Commissioner’s office does not separate by industry how much local sales tax revenues are collected, Carnline has done his own research. He says during a year’s time between 2006 and 2007, Stallings Motors contributed $255,113 in sales tax revenue to Grady County’s coffers and $10,000 in property taxes.
Bad news for Cairo’s dealerships is that some who who live in Grady County buy their vehicle out of town. In 2007, 2,244 vehicles were purchased in counties other then Grady; as of December 1 this year, 1,914 vehicles were purchased elsewhere. Those numbers are according to Grady County Tax Commissioner Phyllis Gainous.
The car manufacturers, GM, Chrysler, Ford, reportedly have designs to close down their small dealerships in rural areas, and instead focus on placing their sales outlets in towns with populations greater than 100,000. Hobson’s purchase of Thomas of Cairo was good news here, even to his local competitor, Carnline. “I was absolutely delighted. I feel like that somebody that’s from around this region will do a much better job than somebody that’s not. Dealerships right now are falling instead of gaining. I don’t think that’s healthy for the manufacturer, however the manufacturer seems to like that idea. For our community it would be a travesty. You see our Ford store. It’s gone and it will never come back, and we don’t need to see that happen with any of our other product lines,” Carnline says. The local Ford dealership, located on U.S. 84, closed in 2005 and remains vacant today.
“It’s sad, really. These rural areas have been the backbone of the car industry for years. We’re able to spend money here, pay taxes. If the little dealership goes away from a community, so does the money,” Hobson says.
Mayor VanLandingham says he hopes the survival of at least two dealerships is a positive sign for the local economy, “I think it does make a statement in fact that if a car dealership can survive under the economic situation we are under now, it is good for the community. Hopefully the community will support them, both Bob and Sam.”

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