Chrysler can't close optimism

Auto » Southwestern Utah dealerships say they will survive.
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Stepping into Lunt Motor Co. in Cedar City is like stepping back in time, with 75 years of history in Chrysler products sprinkled throughout the showroom.

"The building is an antique and so am I," says owner Mitch Lunt whose father, Michael, started the business in 1934.

Lunt, 80, jokes with a youthful degree of optimism, despite recent news that Chrysler LLC is dissolving its long-standing relationship with the dealership.

"It's never over until it is over," Lunt said. "I'm not ready to hit the panic button, yet."

Lunt is not the only Chrysler dealership along Interstate 15 in southwestern Utah to be affected by Chrysler's decision to sever ties with 789 dealerships in the country, including 10 in Utah.

The closures in southwestern Utah mean that there will soon be no Chrysler dealerships between Las Vegas and Provo, a distance of about 500 miles.

Tri-State Motors, which also sells General Motors products, and Parkway Ford, both in Cedar City, also have Jeep dealerships that fell to the ax, but both believe they can weather the storm.

In St. George, Painter's Sun Country Chrysler said the news is bad, but the company plans on staying open and even possibly expanding.

"We're here for the long haul," said general sales Manager Linda Pace on Saturday. "We're not going to let a big manufacturer drag us down."

She said the dealership has no plans to let any of its 43 workers go and that the company was not caught off guard by the news from Chrysler.

Pace said the company had been planning for the future before the bad news arrived, but she was not specific on those plans, wanting to inform workers about them first.

She said the dealership is committed to the community and customers it has been serving for 73 years.

Mike Brooks, of Mesquite, Nev., traveled to St. George to buy a 1500 Dodge Ram pickup from Painter's.

He said a dealership with another U.S. car manufacturer in Mesquite did not treat him well so he traveled to St. George.

The treatment he received at Painter's sold him, and he has no regrets in going with a Chrysler product. he said.

"Hindsight is 50-50," Brooks said.

In Cedar City, Lunt was cautious not to criticize Chrysler too much.

He was more concerned about the economic impact on the region, not just from the Chrysler dealerships being struck from the books but from the poor economy as a whole.

He said he will cut back hours for his 18 employees before he lets them go.

"They have houses to pay for, kids to feed and doctor bills," Lunt said.

He is not throwing in the towel until he knows what happens during a bankruptcy hearing on June 3 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, which will have the final say on closing the dealerships, he said.

On Saturday, a couple was signing the final papers on a Dodge Journey in the sales office of Lunt's son.

Alan Blake, of Cedar City, praised Lunt's dealership for service and longevity.

"I think pulling a dealership from someone you know and trust for 75 years doesn't make sense, Blake said.

His wife, Roberta, said the couple bought their first car, a used Coronet, from Lunt in 1960. "They [Lunt] take good care of us," she said.

Beaver resident Robert Dalley visited Lunt on Saturday to let him know he still had his loyalty.

"It's a tragedy, that after 75 years this would happen," said Dalley. "I'm going to write a letter to the company [Chrysler]."

Up the street at Tri-State Motors, owner David Morris, who has a Jeep franchise, expects to survive, but is not happy the way the auto manufacturer has treated him and other dealers.

He said Jeep generates 5 percent of his sales and that without the SUV franchise, he probably will beef up his General Motors portion.

Morris said he was spared closure by General Motors and has no plans to let any of his 18 employees go.

"But if we're not a Jeep dealer, we can't repair or honor warranties," he said Saturday.

He said he feels the Obama administration's auto task force is taking the wrong approach to the Chrysler problem.

"Closing dealerships doesn't reduce cost for Chrysler because we're not an expense," he said.

Morris said Chrysler wants to mimic the dealership model used by Toyota and other foreign automakers that concentrate dealerships in larger urban areas.

"But if you reduce representation in a geographic area, that can be a real negative for Chrysler," he said. "If you don't have a presence between Las Vegas and Provo, how can that do anything but hurt business?" he said.

He said he has an agreement with Chrysler to help him move his inventory if their contract is terminated, but he does not expect much help.

"If they're in bankruptcy, they don't necessarily have to abide by the contract," he said.

At Parkway Ford in Cedar City, employees would not comment on losing their Jeep dealership except through a written statement.

Owner David Nakken said in the statement that Jeep products account for just 5 percent of the dealership's sales.

"This won't have any effect financially on our dealership whatsoever," Nakken said.