KILMARNOCK, VA — This small city 50 miles (80 km) northeast of the state capital of Richmond is a car dealership ghost town, haunted by the recession, domestic auto makers' drives to reduce dealer count and rapidly changing demographics.
For decades, Kilmarnock boasted General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC dealerships. Now there are none.
Some just up and closed. Two now are used-car lots. The nearest new-car dealerships, including import outlets, are at least 30 miles (48 km) away. That makes vehicle shopping and servicing a chore for the locals.
When Chrysler pulled the plug on Davis Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in 2009, the Detroit Three's presence came to an end.
Crowther Ford closed in late 2008 after a 92-year run. A struggling Chevrolet/Buick outlet went belly-up earlier that year. Its facility is vacant.
Crowther now leases its lot and showroom to Randy Dunn, who operates a used-car outlet, Dunn-Rite Auto Sales.
The Davis family, which in 2010 celebrates its 40th year in auto retailing, continues to operate a used-car store, but owner Ed Davis Jr. remains bitter.
“Chrysler just sent us a letter saying they were terminating our franchise,” he says. “We've appealed, but no luck. They haven't given us a damn cent.”
Kilmarnock, population 1,300, is located in Virginia's “Northern Neck” between the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay. Although a Walmart opened in 2007, the bucolic little community retains a vibrant downtown with specialty stores, restaurants and antique dealers.
For years, its chief source of income and jobs was derived from farming and commercial fisheries, with crabs and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay its primary products. Three seafood-processing plants once operated in the area. Only one remains.
“The town has prospered, while the dealerships faded away,” says Town Manager Tom Saunders.
In recent years, the Kilmarnock area has become an attractive place to live for upscale retirees, “arriving in their BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses,” he says. “They don't live in town. Most build million-dollar homes on the water nearby.”
An aging population also cut into Big Three car sales. About 37% living in the town are 65 or older, not exactly a prime source for new-car sales.
Robert E. (Bobby) Crowther, 73, the third-generation owner of Crowther Ford, decided to close his dealership when sales tumbled following the Wall Street meltdown.
In good years, he sold 200-plus new vehicles and about as many used cars, he says.
Sales started slipping in 2007. Things got bad when the recession took root.
“The stock market crash tore up investments of our customers, just tore them up,” Crowther says. “We also had a lot of customers dying off, and older people don't deal as often.”
Does he regret closing a family enterprise dating to 1916?
“Sure. But things were really changing in the auto business. It made no sense staying on.” He remains a fan of Ford. “I think they're doing great.”
Son Robert Jr., who worked with him before the closing, now is a leading salesman at a Ford store, southwest of here.
For Town Manager Saunders, getting service and warranty work on his 5-car police fleet (four Ford Crown Victorias and a Dodge Charger) has become a hassle.
“It's a nuisance to go 35 miles (56 km) for warranty work,” he says. “It does complicate things.”