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Long Beach Weighs Taking on Signal Hill in Battle to Build Auto Malls

August 23, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

In the good old days, Long Beach Boulevard was the place to go to kick a few tires, check under some hoods and drive away in a shiny new car. But these days, "Auto Row" is dying.

Surrounded by deteriorated neighborhoods and a high crime rate, dealers on Long Beach Boulevard in the City of Long Beach are looking to get out. For the past two years, about half-a-dozen car dealers have been talking with Signal Hill about a proposed auto mall there, but now, the two neighboring cities may be competing as Long Beach officials consider creating an auto mall in their city.

While Long Beach ponders entering the race, Signal Hill plunges ahead with its project. This week, the Signal Hill City Council approved hiring a consultant to oversee the design of a mall and clinch agreements with dealers.

"We're a lot further along than the City of Long Beach," Signal Hill Mayor Richard Ceccia said. "We'll be selling cars long before the City of Long Beach. They're at step one."

This week, a city task force urged the Long Beach City Council to get moving "immediately" on creating an auto mall for at least 10 dealerships. The loss of the dealers and the $2.8 million in sales taxes they collect "would be a disastrous blow to our city," said Thomas D. Formica, chairman of the task force on retail sales and auto sales.

Face Playing Catch-Up

"We're going to play catch-up with our neighbors. There's no question about that," Formica acknowledged.

If Long Beach proceeds with the recommendation to build an auto mall, car dealers could be in a cushy spot if the cities compete and start a bidding war. But to the dealers, timeliness is of the essence.

"We would rather stay in Long Beach. I've been here for 32 years, but we have to evaluate it," said Mike Salta, a member of the task force and a dealer for Pontiac, AMC and Mitsubishi. "Timeliness is very important."

Bob Autrey, who owns a Mazda dealership on the row, put it more bluntly: "It would make no difference to me: Long Beach or Signal Hill or Lakewood--as long as it was close to the freeway."

Both Autrey and Salta have talked with Signal Hill about moving there, but neither wants to say where those negotiations stand.

Signal Hill officials also declined to say which dealerships would move to their new mall. In the Long Beach task force report, seven dealerships--on Long Beach Boulevard and elsewhere in the city--were identified as those that would benefit from being in a mall: Long Beach BMW; Bob Autrey Mazda; Boulevard Buick, GMC, Lincoln-Mercury, Merkur, Saab, Jaguar; M.F. Salta Pontiac, AMC, Mitsubishi; Glenn E. Thomas Dodge; Long Beach Honda, and Palmer Motors.

One thing is certain, Autrey said, once the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach light rail line is built along Long Beach Boulevard, he will leave.

Opposes Rail System

The light rail system is "going to wipe out Long Beach Boulevard. It will kill any retail centers existing. When that happens, I'll be out of there with or without a mall. That's the dumbest thing they've ever done," Autrey said.

The commuter rail line--construction on the boulevard is scheduled to start early next year-- was the final blow to the dealers, who have long bemoaned the changes in their area.

Since the 1950s, the neighborhoods around Long Beach Boulevard have deteriorated, crime has increased, larger markets abandoned the area and many of the dealers have fled. Cut off from the freeways and greater visibility, the dealers who stayed on lost customers to the newly developed auto malls in surrounding communities.

"We're in a heavy crime area. We're in a run-down area. People just don't shop in an area like that after dark," Salta said.

Autrey, describing the area as a "war zone," said he would like to move "as soon as possible."

Where the dealers go represents high stakes for the city. If the dealers who are ready to leave the boulevard stay within the city boundaries, the city will continue to receive about $1.4 million in sales tax revenue and another $1.4 million from repair and auto parts--the spinoff of dealerships.

"Overall, the loss of these dealerships expressed in 1987 dollars would result in a loss to the local economy of over $200 million in direct income, $200 million in indirect income, 350 jobs, $2.8 million in sales tax revenues, and approximately $120,000 in property taxes," the task force report said.

"This loss would seriously jeopardize the continued provision of services to the citizens of Long Beach," the report concluded.

According to the task force, an auto mall with about 10 dealerships would bring in approximately $8.4 million in sales taxes per year to the city. Long Beach is expected to receive $25.6 million in sales taxes during the 1987-88 fiscal year.

Signal Hill estimates its auto mall--with seven to nine dealers--could bring an additional $1.5 million in sales tax revenue. The 2.2-acre city heavily relies on its sales tax money; the $4 million projected for next year in sales taxes would be almost half of the city's annual budget.

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