By Brad Hicks
As Charles Frazier discussed the aspirations and possibilities for the local enterprise he and his business partners recently acquired, one word continually found its way into the conversation: “excited.”
“We’re really excited about being here, and we think that we have a lot of room for growth here,” Frazier said.
Frazier and his partners are the new owners of the business now known as Neighborhood Ford, the business formerly known as Erwin Motors. Neighborhood Ford will occupy the same North Main Avenue building that Erwin Motors once did.
And Frazier said it shouldn’t be too long before the local Ford dealership will again opens its doors. He said he and his partners are targeting an opening date within the next 45 to 60 days.
“I don’t want to rush anything,” Frazier said. “I want to work on this. I want to spruce her up a little bit more.”
As of last week, Frazier was in the process of acquiring from the state a motor vehicle dealer license which would allow him to sell cars from the local lot. Because of this and some work that needs to be completed around the building, Frazier said he is offering a conservative timeframe for the dealership’s opening.
“I hope it doesn’t take me that long,” he said. “I’m trying to be on the safe side and saying 60 days and then if I open in 30 everybody will be tickled, including me. I’d be real tickled. I’m ready to go.”
Erwin Motors, which was established in 1958, closed in mid-January and has remained so since that time. The vehicles were moved to a fenced-in lot behind the dealership on the evening of the business’ closure.
Todd Love, whose family had owned the dealership for more than 50 years, said at that time: “I had sold over a year ago and we had never closed and are still in transition on closing. “That’s where it’s at – the dealership could open back up and it could not.”
Love added that the franchise had not been closed on but the building had been.
“That’s why the cars are behind the building,” Love said. “It may come back to life and it may not. (The new owner) may have to do something different, but that’s where we’re at.”
It was around a month ago that the transaction was made official, Frazier said, as he and his partners completed the “final signing” to purchase the dealership.
“We’ve been working on it for quite some time with Ford Motor Co. and just this thing and that thing,” Frazier said.
Frazier said he and his partners became aware that Erwin Motors was on the market through a combination of his own experience working at a Ford dealership in eastern Kentucky and mutual acquaintances.
“We kindly put out a couple of feelers that maybe we’d be interested in purchasing a dealership and, lo and behold, a gentleman called one day and said, ‘Hey, a little dealership in Erwin, Tenn., may be for sale,’” Frazier said. “So I immediately drove over here, looked at it, loved the little town, my wife and I did. We spent the whole afternoon here in town. I went back and called my partner.”
Following this call, Frazier and his business partner boarded a plane in Kentucky and flew into the Tri-Cities. Frazier returned to Erwin to lead his business partner on a tour of the available dealership. Afterwards, the men sat down with Love at the local Hardee’s restaurant and struck up a deal, kicking off what Frazier referred to as a “long-term negotiation” process.
A native of Knott County, Ky., Frazier will bring more than 30 years of experience in the vehicle sales industry to Neighborhood Ford. Prior to his involvement with the group that now owns the Ford dealership in Erwin, Frazier spent five years as the general manager at a Ford dealership in Hazard, Ky.
Prior to that, he worked for around 18 years at a Chevrolet store also located in Hazard, eventually working his way up to general sales manager. Before that, he spent around 15 years selling Mack trucks in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything,” Frazier said. “I’ve washed cars, changed oil, sold cars, financed cars.”
The partners joining Frazier in the Neighborhood Ford venture are the husband-and-wife team of Marty and Theresa Johnson of Hazard, Ky.
“They have a lot of other business interests and they wanted to get in the car business,” Frazier said of the Johnsons. “I’ve got the experience in the car business and we put a package together, and here we are.”
While drastic aesthetic changes to the exterior of the building are unlikely, there is some work that needs to be completed before Neighborhood Ford opens its doors, including roof repair, getting utilities turned on and internet set up, and the possible sealing of the parking lot, Frazier said. He also said the dealership’s staffing must be addressed, as he had not yet hired anyone.
Frazier said Erwin Motors employed around 17 workers, adding he would like to see Neighborhood Ford staff around 20 people starting out.
“I’m big on local flavor,” Frazier said. “If I could, I’d like to have all 20 of them from Erwin. I’m just that way. I hope to get a few from out in the surrounding areas, though, because we need to draw a little business in, especially in sales. I’d like to have somebody up in Kingsport and Johnson City and Blountville and wherever where I could draw a few people in.”
While he said Neighborhood Ford will remain a Ford dealership “for the time being,” Frazier said he and the Johnsons intend to grow the business. This could include steps to increase the dealership’s exposure, as well as the possibility of opening a used car satellite store in another part of Unicoi County.
“I think you can see us growing, and I think you can see us get bigger out on the interstate,” Frazier said. “That’s kind of our plan. That’s our plan. We’ve actually made some headway into that. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I think you can see us growing. We will grow the business.”
Neighborhood Ford has acquired the Erwin Motors inventory left on the lot following the latter’s closure, Frazier said. He said more inventory will soon be on its way. Once open, Neighborhood Ford, like Erwin Motors, will have full-service, parts and sales departments.
And while Frazier said he is aware that there are plenty of automotive dealerships operating in the larger towns and cities throughout the region, he said he will ensure that Neighborhood Ford stands out from the pack.
“A lot of people get blinders on when they shop for cars,” Frazier said. “I’m going to be your neighbor. I’m going to tell you the highs and lows. We’ve got to make a little money to see the doors open, but we want to be competitive and we’re going to be forthright and straightforward with you.”
Frazier said he was unaware of the dealership’s significance to the local landscape until after he and his partners acquired it. Since then, fellow business owners, local leaders and community members who have learned that a dealership will once again occupy 901 N. Main Ave. have responded with positivity and encouragement, Frazier said. Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development of Unicoi County, referred to the word of Neighborhood Ford’s impending opening as a “bright spot in economic development news in Unicoi County.”
“I’ve sure been treated nice in this town,” Frazier said. “Everybody seems to be excited.”
The community’s excitement has Frazier all the more excited to open Neighborhood Ford. While the name is new and the ownership has changed, Frazier said the new dealership will have just as great a presence in the community as the one before it.
“We’re really excited about being part of the community, and we want to be a part of the community,” Frazier said. “We want to be a part of the neighborhood. That’s real fitting, I think – Neighborhood Ford. We’ll be a friend to the community, I can assure you.”