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Auto dealers staying, investing in downtown

JACKSON — If there is one thing downtown Jackson car dealers share it is that they have been in downtown Jackson for some time. The other commonality: none of them plan to leave the downtown area anytime soon.

“Jackson is our home,” said Paul G. Moak Jr., president of Paul Moak Pontiac.

Paul Moak Pontiac was incorporated May 1, 1946, and originally known as Madison Auto Sales. Madison Auto Sales became Lane-Moak Pontiac in 1957 when Madison Auto Sales owner Collin Lane sold part of the business to Paul Moak Sr. In 1972 when Lane retired Moak Sr. took over the dealership and Paul Moak Pontiac was born. Moak Sr. acquired a Honda franchise in 1971 and in 1978 a Volvo franchise. Then in 1991 Moak Jr. and his brother bought McKay Pontiac-Buick-GMC, a 43-year-old Canton dealership, which was moved in 1994 to Ridgeland.

Moak Sr., however, continued to work out of the State Street location selling Volvos and Hondas. The brands grew, leading to more competition between the two franchises in more market segments. In August 2000 Moak built a new Honda franchise off of High Street to accommodate the booming Honda business. Since that time a Subaru franchise that became available in 2000 as well as the Volvo and Pontiac franchises have taken over the 912 South State store.

Moak Jr. has plans to redesign the facility now housed by the Volvo and Subaru franchises in order to provide what he calls “ an exclusive Subaru and Volvo experience.” The sales and service departments of both franchises will be completely separate. Construction began on the project in February. The Subaru portion should be finished early in June and by September the entire project should be completed.

“Nothing’s perfect in the world but we’ve been pleased in the way that Jackson and Mississippi have responded to us,” Moak Jr. said. And anyway, he asked, “The question becomes if we weren’t here where would we be? It’s not easy to move franchises.”

Even if it was easy to move Moak Jr. said he is not ready to.

“We’d like to stay and be a part of it and as a result it be a better place for everybody,” he said. And anyway, he added, “Our location (on State Street) is a quarter of a mile from I-55 and I-20. I don’t know of a more centrally located position. It’s not as visible as if we were right on the interstate but in terms of being centrally located and easy to get to it’s pretty hard to beat.”

Moak Jr. is also pleased with the number of people who work in the area, and said many of his customers work in the surrounding government and hospital buildings and at Millsaps as well.

“You’ve got one of the largest concentrations of workers that exists in Jackson or the metro area and possibly even in Mississippi and they all drive to work,” he said. “They need their cars repaired and worked on and the opportunities to buy a car occasionally.”

Moak Jr. noted too that the Volvo dealership is the only Volvo dealership in the state — something he believes has helped his State Street location. But in the long run he said because of today’s technology it no longer matters where a business is located. “If someone goes on the Internet they’ll find what they want and go there,” he said. “We get a lot of hits on our Web site. That helps us.”

Like Paul Moak Pontiac, Fowler Buick-GMC Truck Company has been in downtown Jackson for many years too — since Sept. 1, 1953, to be precise. Larry Cruise, president and dealer/operator at Fowler Buick-GMC, has sentiments about the area are similar to Moak’s.

“We’re centrally located in the City of Jackson and in the tri-county area too,” Cruise said. “We have no plans on relocating from downtown at this point.”

Over the years Cruise said business has been steady and even showing some growth — the dealership in fact is one of the 75 largest Buick dealerships in the country. Cruise believes there is much potential for not only his State Street location but also for the future of downtown Jackson.

“If we didn’t feel like we could sell and service vehicles in this location, believe me, we wouldn’t be here,” Cruise said. “Bottom line — we’re glad to be here. We represent General Motors in the tri-county area. We take it seriously and try to do a good job for General Motors.”

Cruise feels it is important for downtown Jackson to have some retail investments. He knows there is talk of apartments being built in the downtown area but he said, “Without any retail establishments in the area I really don’t see downtown growing or surviving.”

However, Cruise said, “We and the Moaks I think both have a long-term commitment to the city. We support the community not only with our contributions but with our time.”

The Fowler- and Moak-owned dealerships are not the only dealerships in downtown Jackson. A third — Horace Slay Auto Sales, with its trademark classic Corvette atop a tall sign that reads ‘Horace Slay Auto Sales’ — is also located on South State Street. A muscle car, classic car and used Corvette dealer, Horace Slay Auto Sales has been in its location since the first week of January 1973. Unlike Fowler and Moak, though, Scotty Slay, son of Horace Slay and general manager of Horace Slay Auto Sales, said he and his family have considered moving the business out to the interstate or even to Clinton. The reasons: the lower prevalence of crime and higher traffic counts outside of downtown Jackson.

“We’ve got a cyclone fence out back with the rolled barb wire,” Slay said. “Its (crime) is prevalent enough that they just cut another hole every two or three nights. That’s the most frustrating thing about being downtown.”

About six months ago a $34,000 Corvette was stolen from the lot, and for Horace Slay Auto Sales, unfortunately thefts are a commonplace.

“We’ve had people to steal two in one night,” Scotty Slay said. “A lot of people think we’re rich because of the types of cars we sell but we’re just trying to make a living like everyone else. You have to sell six cars to pay for one thief one night.”

As a result of the thefts, the Slays are considering hiring a night watchman and an armed guard.

As for the traffic counts, Scotty Slay said, “The interstate probably has 20 times more cars that pass a day.” Regardless, he said it is unlikely he and his family will move the business. “I can’t pay $1 million for a piece of property and then $1 million for a building to go on top of it,” he explained. “I never would get it paid for.”

Even with two strikes against downtown Jackson, though, Scotty Slay said he still has a “definite affection” for the area.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll rebuild downtown Jackson,” he said. “I think they need to get some restaurants in downtown so you have more. I’d like to see some places that bring night traffic into town. They’re building strip malls everywhere and you can remodel cheaper. I don’t think it would take that much to revitalize the downtown area.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.


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