Regular travelers of West 15th Street may have noticed the roughly six-month, $1 million transformation that gave Merced Chevrolet its new look.
It might sound like putting that kind of money into a Merced business means the owner is expecting the economy to improve, and that’s because he is. “I believed when I was coming to Merced that the economy had bottomed out, which implies that I believe that the economy is going to go back up,” owner Wil Dean, 47, said. “That’s what I truly believe.”
Originally from Fremont, Dean was looking to buy a car dealership for three years before he settled on the more than 3-acre Merced Chevrolet in October 2011.
When he bought the building, Dean said, much of it looked the way it did when it went up in the 1990s. So the $1 million face-lift was necessary to meet branding expectations of the Chevrolet corporation.
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“The facility was a nice facility, but it did not look like a Chevy store,” he said.
The big blue structure now at the front of the building is the Chevrolet equivalent of McDonald’s golden arches. So away went the brown and red Spanish-style roofing, and in came bright white and royal blue. Also, the temporary signs were replaced with permanent ones.
The showroom floor got new tile, lighting and a customer lounge complete with Wi-Fi. The body shop and service center, as well as the bathrooms, have also been remodeled. More than 40 people are employed full-time at Merced Chevrolet.
Dean has been in the car business for a decade. Before moving to Merced, he owned a Saturn dealership in Elk Grove until 2008.
He said he’s seeing positive signs of recovery in town. Though the Wal-Mart distribution Center is on hold indefinitely, a handful of new chain stores opened in town earlier this year. Empty storefronts and industrial space have also been filling up. “I think Merced is on the upswing,” Dean said.
When business is good in the car industry, it can be good for sales tax revenues. Of the $9.7 million the city made last year in sales tax revenue, $2 million was generated from the automobile and transportation industry, according to city records. The industry’s sales tax revenue, which grew by 10 percent from 2012, was second in 2013 only to general consumer goods sales tax revenue.
Car sales have been slowly improving in Merced, said Gary Hogston, general manager of Merced Honda. “The business is basically healing from the worst times it’s had in 70 years,” he said. “It is on the way back.”
This year has started flat with sales about the same as last year, Hogston said. The real test could come in the summer when people are more apt to be in a buying mood.
An increase in new car sales could be a sign of improving consumer confidence, according to Jordan Levine, an economist from Beacon Economics of Los Angeles. “I think it’s a pretty good bellwether from an economics perspective,” he said in January. “(Cars) are things you don’t tend to buy when you have a lot of trepidation about whether you’re going to be able to hold onto your job.”
The million-dollar upgrade of Merced Chevrolet was also good news for about a dozen Merced-area subcontractors, said Skip George, the general contractor for the remodeling.
George is the president of Commercial Construction Co. in Merced. He said his company hadn’t been a part of a job that size in about six years.
About 90 to 95 percent of his clients come from within Merced County, George said, so it was important that the dealership hired local workers. “Jobs like that are pretty important to the local people, because it does help us a lot,” he said.
Dean compared his philosophy on how he wants to run his business to the way a family looks out for one another. He said he wants to stay local when he can and also has been involved in local charitable work.
“We, as people who live in this community, should be buying from and supporting this community when we can,” he said. “If we take those dollars outside of this community, it hurts.”