By WILTON J. “BILL” JOHNSON JR.
MBJ Contributing Writer
MERIDIAN — The new building has inspired shock and awe in Meridian. It houses Chunky River Harley-Davidson and dwarfs the nearby restaurants. Set next to one of the major entrances to Bonita Lakes Mall, the structure is topped off with a copper dome. The handsome and manicured landscaping has drawn comments on its own.
And it’s highly visible from heavily traveled Interstate 20/59. All of those characteristics suit owner Meurice LeFevre Sr. just fine. He had to deal with four property owners to get the location. “There’s just no other site comparable in Meridian, and then we wanted a unique building,” he said. The “we” includes wife Peggy standing nearby. And they’re open for business…big time.
Harrell Construction Group from Ridgeland was the contractor for the building and Carl Magee was superintendent. Magee is easy going, bespectacled and has full flowing graying hair and beard. “I got here last September and we’ll turn the building over to them this weekend (June 14),” he said.
The architect was nationally famous TVS in Atlanta — they designed the Georgia Dome and the World Congress Center among other renowned structures. “For some reason, they wanted to do a Harley-Davidson building,” LeFevre said. “We had the option of three designs and we chose this one — it’s unique.”
Magee said Harrell was selected because of their previous relationship with Ed Johnson, one of the developers of Bonita Lakes Mall, and also one of the four property owners from whom LeFevre purchased the property. “We worked with the architect and it became a sort of ‘design and build’ project,” Magee said. “It’s a Red Iron structure like most of today’s bigger buildings. Meurice could have built 8,000 square feet less and still have met the Harley-Davidson specifications, but it came in close to original cost estimates.”
Meurice LeFevre matches Magee’s graying beard, but his is closely trimmed and, contrary to many owner-contractor relationships, it would appear the two have become good friends. “They did a fabulous job,” LeFevre said. “It’s the biggest project I’ve ever had and it went the smoothest. They exceeded our expectations.”
LeFevre has a winding trail leading to Meridian. “With my name, a lot of people figure I’m Cajun, but my ancestors were Huguenots and I was born in North Carolina,” he said. “My parents moved to Atlanta soon afterwards. They were professional gospel singers.”
With that background, he majored in music at Tennessee Tech and then became successful in the music recording and publishing business in Atlanta. But at age 12, his dad had given him his first Harley.
“At one time, my dad, my older brother and I had three Harleys just alike,” he remembered with obvious fondness. “And I got into dirt bike racing for fun.”
That led him into buying a bankrupt Atlanta Honda motorcycle dealership in 1976. The next year, it was the number one dealer in the Southeast U.S. “That was so much fun that I sold my music business. Then in 1980 when interest rates were so high, some guy made me a huge offer and I took it. The economy was so bad, he promptly went under.” LeFevre retired for the first time.
In 1983, he bought two Jiffy Lube franchises in Atlanta from the parent company. He sold them back in ‘84 at a substantial profit and retired again. He bought those back, plus two more and added three others mostly in the Atlanta area. “Again, we made a big success and I sold them in ‘98 and retired…again,” he recalled.
He and Peggy, a Meridian native, bought a motor coach and traveled the country and also traveled Europe extensively. They were visiting Peggy’s parents in 2001 when Meurice bought a Harley from the local dealer. And then it happened.
“I said, ‘If you know of anybody interested in selling a Harley dealership, how about letting me know.’ Without batting an eye, he said, ‘Step into my office.’” LeFevre took over shortly thereafter.
The dealership was located in a 4,000-square-foot building in a nondescript commercial area and annual sales grossed about $1.5 million. Sales in 2002 zoomed to $4 million and are expected to reach $8 million this year. LeFevre attributes that phenomenal increase to his aggressive sales approach and the expansion plans he shared with Harley.
“They send out a questionnaire annually to their dealers and they saw I was serious,” LeFevre said. “We can sell all that they produce. Harley-Davidson’s sales have increased every quarter, even during the three recessions since 1985, and they’ve recently had a record setting billion dollar quarter.”
His most popular models are “Fat Boy” and “Road King,” both selling for $17,000-$18,000. But he’s proudest of the three highly customized models he receives annually that go for $30,000 each. Two of them have already been sold to customers from Florida and Louisiana and the third will go to a buyer from Colorado. However, LeFevre is quick to point out that 50% of his customer base is within a 25-mile radius of Meridian.
For those customers, his new 23,000-square-foot building contains a “HOG (Harley Owners Group) Room” outfitted with a billiard table, pinball machines and darts. There’s also a catering kitchen and a 140-person capacity meeting room.
As for economic impact, LeFevre says that the previous dealer had four employees. “We’ve got 16 now and will have 20 at full strength,” he said. “And think about how our increased sales are affecting the sales tax revenue at 7%.”
Which brings up a sore subject. The LeFevre’s can’t understand why their sales are taxed at 7% and autos are only 5%. “They both transport people,” Peggy said.
Aside from that, both are very happy in their location. “Meridian was just sitting here for 20 of the past 25 years,” Peggy said. “But we’ve seen a lot of growth during these last five years. We got in on the ground floor and hope we’ve inspired other people to invest in the future of our area.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com.