Originally created 11/28/02

Traffic woos dealers west



This year Lloyd Graybeal made his biggest business decision since 1973, when he opened a used-car lot downtown.

His choice: stay in the central business district or follow the rest of the retail auto market westward.

"We either had to move or get out of the business," said Mr. Graybeal, who two weeks ago reopened Graybeal Motor Co. at its new location on River Watch Parkway, less than a block from Washington Road in Columbia County.

The 0.08-acre lot holds a 150-car inventory, and its 5,500-square-foot office, which used to be a day-care center, now boasts an indoor showroom and detail shop.

His previous lot, at 418 12th St., joins several other properties that once housed new- and used-car dealerships.

The migration began more than 20 years ago, when major dealers such as Master Pontiac and Milton Ruben Chevrolet started acquiring large tracts along Washington Road, the main artery to Columbia County. They were followed by others, such as Walker Ford (now Fairway Ford) and Augusta Lincoln-Mercury.

Soon, dealerships such as Roberts Motor Co. and Bill Duke Buick were selling their franchises, leaving Johnson Motor Co., a Cadillac dealer, as downtown's only new-car seller.

"To me, staying downtown didn't make sense," Mr. Graybeal said, adding that he needed high traffic to generate new business. "The only people we were selling to were previous customers and people who were referred to us."

If not for the wholesale operation, Mr. Graybeal said, the downtown dealership would not have been profitable during its final years.

James Still, the owner of Cuz Still's Used Cars at 1484 Broad St., knows the feeling. The completion of River Watch Parkway during the early 1990s permanently changed his business.

"I'm just not getting the traffic anymore," said Mr. Still, who, after 42 years, has decided to quit the business. "I'm planning on getting out by the end of the year."

But other downtown dealers are content, such as used-car dealer Roberts Auto Center, formerly Roberts Motor Co.

"We're not going anywhere," said Teddy Roberts, whose family has owned its 15th Street location, near the medical district, since 1952. "We get a multitude of medical traffic by here."

Growth potential in the downtown medical district, such as the proposed cancer center, has Duncan Johnson feeling bullish. He said his family dealership, Johnson Motor Co. at 1122 Walton Way, is convenient to medical district customers and to North Augusta and Aiken.

"I'm even thinking of expanding," he said, adding that his Cadillac sales are up 23 percent this year. "We plan to be here for the long haul."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or dcline@augustachronicle.com.