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Some rural car dealerships say PR push saved them

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[July 31, 2009]  BROKEN BOW, Neb. (AP) -- Thomas McCaslin might never know for sure why General Motors called two weeks ago to say his 80-year-old dealership in the heart of Nebraska cattle country wouldn't close after all. He has a feeling that a hamburger cookout and an old-fashioned brand of political lobbying had something to do with it.

Restaurant"There's no doubt in my mind" it helped, McCaslin said Thursday as about 200 residents gathered to celebrate the town's only GM dealership continuing to sell Chevrolets. "You have all these elected officials who make things happen because they depend on votes."

GM's reversal followed a massive letter-writing campaign and lobbying of elected officials that started with a cookout in the town square just days after Gateway Motors was told in May it would be among 1,300 in the country to close.

In many rural areas, GM dealerships once set to be casualties of the company's financial freefall find themselves part of its reformation after sending handwritten pleas and barbecue invites -- including one that used GM's own "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet" slogan.

GM says its change of heart on about 50 dealerships it called underperforming wasn't based on those kinds of factors or any political arm-twisting.

Instead, GM spokeswoman Susan Garontakos said, the company realized it erred when analyzing the finances of the dealerships and reconsidered the distances between some dealers. Closing Gateway Motors, for example, would have meant people had to drive 60 miles to the closest GM dealer.

"In some cases, it may have been too far of a distance for customers to travel," Garontakos said. "Lobbying did not anything to do with it."

GM dealers find that hard to believe, and credit a never-say-die attitude that spawned homespun marketing campaigns they say put them on the political radar.

Chrysler dealers set to close down, though, didn't have the same options. Not one decision to eliminate 789 franchises has been reversed, Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham said, because the closures were a result of bankruptcy proceedings.

GM's shift on some dealerships isn't likely to undo what it tried to achieve in bankruptcy proceedings, either. It still plans to close 200 more dealerships than originally estimated.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning had filed objections to GM's bankruptcy plans on behalf of 42 states, winning some protections for dealers. He mentioned the Broken Bow dealership -- the only one of about 20 scheduled to be closed in Nebraska that will stay open -- when GM asked which ones deserved a second look.

"GM always said there was some subjectivity in the process," Bruning said at Thursday's celebration. "Broken Bow got on our radar screen because Thomas (McCaslin) and the residents of Broken Bow rang the bell," he added later.

Gov. Dave Heineman said he understands GM has to say it wasn't a matter of persuasion -- "but they recognized there was something special ... about Broken Bow."

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The Tri County La Junta dealership in Colorado is the only known dealership in that state to stay open after receiving a closure notice. It also got residents to write letters to politicians, and its owners traveled to Washington when Congress held hearings on GM.

Like Gateway, the dealership was one that Colorado politicians "ran up the flagpole" to GM during the bankruptcy case, said Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Auto Dealers' Association.

"I don't think the trip to D.C. caused it," Jackson said. "But they were activists in the process" and that helped draw attention when GM reconsidered. The dealership also is 70 miles away from another GM dealer.

Owners of Cupp Chevrolet in Marceline, Mo., invited GM executives to a "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet" rally after it got a closure notice. More than 1,200 people showed up.

GM executives and Missouri politicians received 2,200 letters from people asking that the family-owned dealership in the town of 2,560 remain open, and were given a business plan written with help from local high school students. A Web site helped rally support, prompting people from as far away as Canada to write letters.

About a month after giving the closure notice, GM said it had changed its mind. As with the other cases, it didn't say why.

"It was the support of the people that allowed GM to see we're needed," said Robert Cupp. He contacted other dealers who received closure notices and asked if they wanted to do some of the things his dealership was doing.

"All of them I contacted said no, they told me it wouldn't work, it's a waste of time and energy."

In Broken Bow, McCaslin said he now gets calls from dealers around the country asking how he convinced GM to keep his business open.

Outside his dealership, Alma Wiggins-Woodward said she and her husband have bought cars there for decades, including a few Cadillacs and trucks in the garage now. She wondered how badly the loss of the dealership would have crippled the local economy.

"What are we going to do, just do away with the agrarian areas?" she said. "That's just not right."

[Associated Press; By NATE JENKINS]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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