Local auto dealerships undergo changes

The fall of 2008 was the beginning of the end for a number of Las Vegas auto dealerships. That's when Bill Heard Chevrolet closed on Decatur Boulevard.

And while that closure was followed by many others in the industry, one long-time regional car dealer saw a future in the Las Vegas market. In November 2008, Ed Bozarth bought the shuttered Vista Chevrolet, another loss for Bill Heard Enterprises, and opened up the dealership this year as Ed Bozarth Nevada #1 Chevrolet. The dealership, located in a 70,000-square-foot facility sitting on nine acres at U.S. Highway 95 and Ann Road in the northwest, offers new Chevrolet models, preowned vehicles and service for all makes and models.

But Bozarth isn't the only car dealer bullish on Southern Nevada. In April 2010, Towbin Automotive Group opened Prestige Chrysler Jeep Dodge in the northwest at 6520 Centennial Center Blvd. Prior to the dealership's opening, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge owners living in the northwest had to travel to the Valley Automall in Henderson or to East Sahara Avenue for dealership service.

"It's been a long time coming," Josh "Chop" Towbin, general manager of the dealership, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Drive section in April. "We are very pleased to be able to provide great customer service for iconic brands that people love."

A new $35 million Lexus dealership is being built in Henderson. The owners of Lexus of Las Vegas broke ground on what will be the year's largest major car dealership construction project completed in Southern Nevada. The 10.2-acre Lexus of Henderson is scheduled to open this fall and will be in the Valley Automall on Eastgate Road.

In addition, Findlay Automotive has announced plans to open a 25,000-square-foot Volkswagen dealership in 2011 in the northwest valley.

But while the opening of new dealerships is a welcome sign for Las Vegas' recovery, the past years' economic woes were particularly tough on other local car dealers. Three brands -- Chrysler, Hyundai and Saturn -- endured the biggest challenges in the Las Vegas Valley. What started in 2008 with Bill Heard Enterprises closing the two Las Vegas stores was followed by the closing of Desert Dodge in February 2009 and, not long after, the loss of one of Las Vegas' oldest dealerships, the 67-year-old Pat Clark Auto Showcase, in May 2009.

In May 2009, Chrysler LLC, maker of the Chrysler 300, PT Cruiser, Sebring and Town & Country, also declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and partnered with Italian automaker Fiat. Consequently, the company ceased manufacturing operations and canceled 800 contracts nationally.

Four Chrysler dealerships in the Las Vegas Valley closed. Affected dealerships were Jim Marsh Jeep, United Dodge and United Chrysler Jeep. Integrity Chrysler had previously announced its closing due to poor sales.

Chapman Dodge at 3175 E. Sahara Ave. and Towbin Dodge and Chapman Chrysler Jeep, both located in the Valley Automall, survived the cuts and continue to sell and service Chrysler vehicles. Jim Marsh lost the Chrysler brand but continues to sell Kia, Mitsubishi, Suzuki and Jeep models at 8555 W. Centennial Parkway.

In addition to closing its United Dodge and United Chrysler Jeep stores, Forman Automotive Group was also forced to close United Hyundai in January 2010. The Dodge and Chrysler Jeep stores were ordered closed by the manufacturers in 2009. The Hyundai dealership closed suddenly because of numerous lawsuits brought by Bank of America.

The up-and-coming Korean make has faced other closures and sales in the Las Vegas Valley.

Centennial Hyundai also closed in April 2009 after a mere six months of business, although Tom Letizia, public relations representative for the dealership's parent company, Supergroup, said the dealership could reopen at a later date.

Remaining Hyundai dealerships include Henderson Hyundai in the Valley Automall and Planet Hyundai, located at 7150 W. Sahara Ave.

Planet Hyundai, once the top-selling Hyundai dealership in the United States, was sold in March to Ron Coury and Donald Tamburro, who have high hopes for the dealership.

"Hyundai USA is in the midst of a $190 million advertising campaign, resulting in increased customer awareness and interest in the Hyundai brand," Coury told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in May.

But the news wasn't all bad.

When General Motors Corp. decided to can Pontiac and Saturn brand in 2009, the Findlay Automotive Group softened the blow of the tough news to its employees by retaining many of them. Findlay was able to rebrand its two former Saturn dealerships -- Saturn of Henderson and Saturn of West Sahara -- into Lincoln Mercury and Kia stores, respectively. Findlay Lincoln Mercury opened March 30 and Kia opened in July 2009.

Saturn of West Sahara kept its staff and made a smoother transition into selling Kias, while many Saturn of Henderson employees moved to the auto group's Chevrolet dealership at 6800 S. Torrey Pines and Findlay Cadillac in the Valley Automall. Other employees began working at the Lincoln Mercury store, while others transferred elsewhere.

And some dealers are upgrading their facilities, often to meet the architectural and interior standards of the auto manufacturer. Findlay Audi moved from a small dealership to a larger flagship facility that complies with Audi requirements. The new 30,000-square-foot facility opened last fall in the Valley Automall in Henderson.

"The new showroom and dealership facilities are much more on par with the Audi luxury brand," said Audi Henderson's General Manager Jim DiGuilio. "It is exciting for us to move into this new location and expand when so many other businesses are contracting."

Later this summer, Desert Mini of Las Vegas moves from its location at 2333 S. Decatur Blvd. around the corner to a larger, state-of-the-facility on West Sahara Avenue.