Jackson — A.L. East III has seen many changes in automotive sales since helping at his father’s Ford dealership in Zachary, La., as a youngster. He’s watched mass automotive assembly production grow, especially in the U.S., and has endured fluctuating gasoline prices and other industry trends. But the greatest challenge has been bettering the area in which his dealership, East Ford, is located.
“I’ve been here 42 years, and I’ve always said that if it gets to where I don’t like it, I’ll get out,” said East, who opened the dealership October 8, 1962, at the corner of U.S. 80 and Robinson Road. “I like it here, and I’m always looking to expand or add services.”
East was instrumental in organizing the Metrocenter Area Coalition in 1998. Headed by Nina Holbrook, former manager of the Metrocenter Mall, the coalition has successfully lobbied for the area to be designated the Metro West Urban Renewal Area, a classification that would allow businesses to qualify for low-interest loans, redevelopment credits, grants and other funding. It would allow the City of Jackson to use eminent domain as a mechanism for removing “slight and blight.” The coalition helped secure $16,000 in enterprise community funds for landscape improvements at the I-220 and U.S. 80 interchange and lighting improvements that extend to Gallatin Street.
“Our objective is to revitalize the whole of Highway 80,” said East. “To do that, we’ll have to have a lot of buildings come down and new buildings go up. We’ll not only work on crime and clean-up, but also real estate clean up and redevelopment. Right now, Jackson doesn’t have any place with land available to locate major businesses. They all go across the river to Rankin or Madison counties. There’s plenty of development in the northeast section of town, but most businesses would like to have a west Jackson location, which has a different income group and racial makeup.”
Crime surrounding the Metrocenter area has plagued businesses like East Ford.
“Not actual crime, but the perception of it,” East quickly pointed out. “We don’t have prostitution and drugs on our end of Highway 80, but the perception goes the whole length of 80. What goes on down there hurts us.”
The coalition’s efforts to involve law enforcement officials in the crime cleanup “is an everyday struggle,” said Holbrook. “Usually, we call the sheriff’s department and get an immediate reaction. That’s not always so with the Jackson Police Department.”
According to a map of the Metro West Urban Renewal Area, it is a narrow strip of land that runs between U.S. 80 and Interstate 20, from Morrison Road to Gibraltar Drive, and varies in thickness as I-20 moves away from U.S. 80. It also takes in the shopping center north of U.S. 80 that houses Toys ‘R’ Us and the old K-Mart property.
“We’ve completed the redevelopment draft and plan,” said Franklyn Tate, deputy director of planning and development for the Jackson Redevelopment Authority (JRA), manager of the city’s economic development office and the primary liaison between coalition businesses and city departments. “The JRA has not given its final blessing yet, but it will be on their agenda at the next meeting (held just before press time). Then it goes to the city council to sign off on it.”
Since working at his dad’s dealership, Nelson & East Ford, established in 1922 when the automobile industry was emerging, East has become a fixture in the automobile business. The Ford Motor Company has bestowed him national achievement awards, including two Chairman’s Awards, 23 North American Awards and most recently, the Blue Oval status, which refers to the company’s newest and highest distinction for customer satisfaction and overall excellence.
For six years, East represented Mississippi’s franchised new car dealers as a board member for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA). Several years ago, the state NADA organization, over which he has presided, nominated him as the Time Magazine Quality Dealer of the Year.
As a community leader, Goodwill Industries recognized him with the Community Service Award in 1994. A former Jackson-Hinds Library board member, East actively supports St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral and School, and has chaired legislative and finance committees of the Metro Crime Commission. But he is proudest of the accomplishments made recently with the Metrocenter Area Coalition.
“Since the first of the year with Nina working full-time, I’ve seen more real estate prospects for the area than I have in the last five years,” said East. “Yes, we’re making headway, getting attention and inquiries from national companies that want to locate here. This is what starts it. We’ve got streetlights coming. Businesses are noticing the positive changes before the public is. That’s normal. The real estate part of it is going to start developing and you’ll see things happening there in the near future.”
Despite obstacles, East Ford remains one of the nation’s top dealerships.
“We’re in a great location here, where the highways come together,” said East. “We’ve sold cars north and south, in Alabama and Louisiana. Patty Peck is probably the dealership in Jackson with the most neighborhood location (on County Line Road), which gets very little business outside the neighborhood, while a dealership like ours draws from quite a distance.”
The latest changes in automotive sales involves product changes rather than retail or service issues, said East.
“A lot of changes are coming in how economical cars are, how much fuel they consume,” he said. “If the price of fuel holds, you’ll see a lot more diesel and battery-powered vehicles. Ford has a hybrid (gasoline/electric) vehicle coming out this year that will be a forerunner of other models to come. It’s a small SUV, and we’re anxious to get it in.”
East plans to keep the dealership location intact.
“Without the coalition, I’d look to relocate,” said East. “With the coalition, we intend to be successful and I’m not even thinking about it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.