Lagging consumer spending in the Lakeway Area was just one of the reasons for the doors closing Tuesday afternoon on the largest KIA dealership in the Southeast.
“Nobody’s buying cars,” said Lifetime KIA Chief Operating Officer George Edrington.
“Our service business is off by 50 percent. It’s strictly a business call. I wish I had better words for the community. I wish we could continue, but the losses would keep going. We’re just closing.”
At approximately 4:30 p.m., Lifetime KIA of Morristown posted signs on its doors reading: “Effective December 30, Lifetime KIA has ceased operations at this location. Customers can locate an authorized KIA dealer by logging on to kia.com.”
The posting signaled the loss of 50 jobs to the Lakeway Area. At one time, the dealership had employed more than 100.
By 6:30 p.m., the lights had been dimmed on the one-acre-plus Parisian themed showroom, guarded by two 8,000 lb. marble lions. The interior boasted a floor-to-ceiling European fountain, movie theater, kids zone, marble and granite bathrooms and leather furniture.
A few staff members patrolled the soon-to-be-empty lot, announcing to visitors, “we have ceased operations.”
A vehicle was pulled in to block the east entrance.
The second — and most devastating — reason for the closure was the inability to obtain credit from banking institutions, according to Edrington.
“The banks have withdrawn consumer lending,” he said. “We’re in the car business, and when consumers can’t buy cars, we’re out of business. I’ve talked to bank executives who admit they have received millions of dollars from the fed- eral governments but they will not loan it — they are saving it to cover future losses. They are under no restrictions from the government. They were handed the money with no strings attached.
“The government did nothing to help the main street guys.”
A sales associate who wished to remain anonymous had arrived at the dealership within the past few months.
“I didn’t see it coming then,” he said. “But in the past few weeks, I could see the signs. I’ve seen it before.”
Edrington had cautionary words for the economic future of the region.
“We’re not going to be the only ones affected by this in 2009,” he said. “Unless we can get some help for main street.”
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years. I’ve been through three recessions, and I’ve seen nothing this critical. They kept lending money in the previous recessions – now they’re not even lending money. (When faced with this kind of situation), the consumer is going to foreclose on his house, let his car go back and go upside down on his credit cards.”
As for Edrington and Mark Nadler, Lifetime KIA president and owner, the situation was do and die.
“It’s just a business decision,” Edrington said. “We appreciate our customers. And Mark is taking care of his customers first. We will have staff on the lot. Every car will get repaired. Every payoff will be made. We gathered the employees together today and told them they will be paid for their labor. He’s doing what’s right. No one’s going to have to worry about their cars. Critical cases will be sent to a dealership.”
Consumers who have purchased a car from Lifetime KIA of Morristown will have options, according to Edrington.
“They can go to the Web site, kia.com and pick a local dealership. The other dealers will not snub our customers. They will welcome them with open arms.”
There are four dealerships within a 50 mile radius of the now shuttered Lifetime KIA location, Harry Lane Kia in Knoxville, Rusty Wallace Kia in Alcoa, Grindstaff Kia in Johnson City and Wallace Kia of Bristol.
A phone number was also posted for customers with vehicles currently being serviced at the dealership: 336-262-9939.
Nadler’s other Lifetime KIA dealership in Murphy, N.C. is a separate corporation according to Edrington and is still open for business.