Chrysler's dealer shutdown targets three in Tampa Bay area

A Jeep and other vehicles for sale are on display at St. Pete Jeep Chrysler, one of three area dealerships on the closure list.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

A Jeep and other vehicles for sale are on display at St. Pete Jeep Chrysler, one of three area dealerships on the closure list.

In a desperate bid to make itself viable against foreign competitors, Chrysler LLC announced Thursday it would eliminate 789 stores, including three Tampa Bay area dealerships.

St. Pete Jeep Chrysler, Tarpon Springs Dodge, and Fitzgerald Countryside Jeep, all on U.S. 19, were among about 30 Florida dealerships marked for extinction in a master list released in bankruptcy court.

Locally, more than 100 people could lose their jobs. The automaker, which declared bankruptcy on April 30, said the closings must occur on or before June 9, which gives local owners little time to process their looming demise.

"We've all got to live with it. It's pretty cut and dry. Our franchise extension was rejected,'' said William Douglas, owner of the St. Petersburg dealership, which employs about 50 people.

Chrysler wants to close about a quarter of its 3,200 dealerships considered noncompetitive and antiquated. About half of its dealers account for 90 percent of U.S. sales.

The average Honda or Toyota dealership sells about four times the cars an average Chrysler dealer does, 1,200 vs. 300. That's got to change, said Chrysler vice chairman Jim Press. He said the list of doomed dealers is final and not subject to appeal.

"This is a difficult day for us and not a day anybody can be prepared for," Press said Thursday.

St. Pete Jeep Chrysler has been owned by Douglas since 1997, when he bought out the former Swanson Chrysler Plymouth at 2500 U.S. 19.

Tarpon Springs Dodge belongs to Plattner Automotive in Sarasota. It's a low-volume store near the border of Pasco and Pinellas counties that focuses on used car sales.

Fitzgerald Countryside Jeep fell afoul of Chrysler's plan to eliminate single-brand stores and market Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler under one roof.

Geography also played a role. The St. Petersburg dealership sits across the street from Dayton Andrews Dodge. The Countryside store competed with another Dayton Andrews store in Clearwater.

Andrews received a certified letter from Chrysler on Thursday morning saying its stores had been spared. He's looking forward to Chrysler's proposed merger with Italy's Fiat, which should broaden his lineup of economy cars. It's still unclear whether Fiat would market under its own name or badge its cars with the Chrysler seal.

"It's been a very opaque process," co-owner Elliot Andrews said. "I feel for anybody who ended up on the bad side today."

The U.S. Treasury denied any role in Thursday's closings announcement. It said the decision was Chrysler's and Fiat's. A hearing is scheduled for June 3 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York to determine if a judge will approve Chrysler's motion.

More than half of the dealerships being eliminated sell fewer than 100 vehicles per year. Rural dealerships in the Northeast and Midwest seemed to take a disproportionate hit. Several closings were clustered in Sarasota-Bradenton. Fort Lauderdale-based Auto Nation got termination letters for seven dealers, though three are located out of state.

A Dodge store in Venice owned by Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan got the ax. But on Thursday afternoon a defiant message scrolled across the dealership's Web page: "ATTENTION: We are not closing per Chrysler's request."

Chrysler dealerships aren't the only ones braced for bad news this week. General Motors Corp. plans to notify 1,100 dealers that it will not renew franchise agreements when they expire at the end of September 2010.

Local GM dealers assume almost all of the Tampa Bay area's stores will survive the guillotine. Several outlets, including Autoway Chevrolet of Tampa, have already closed by attrition.

Chrysler has received $4 billion in federal loans and has been operating under bankruptcy protection since April 30. Its sales this year are down 46 percent compared with sales in the first four months of 2008. It reported a $16.8 billion loss last year.

For Douglas, an auto salesman since graduating from the University of Florida in 1971, the parting is bitter. He's been selling Chryslers and Jeeps for decades. While Chrysler won't buy back cars and auto parts, the company has suggested it will help closing dealers sell their stock to surviving dealers.

Douglas plans to hold onto his St. Petersburg lot and acquire a franchise for another make of automobile. He blames the government for helping terminate his business.

"I feel the administration's goal is to protect the auto workers union. The dealers are being negatively impacted with no compensation," he said. "Before we got the letter, I certainly thought we had a chance.''

Times wires contributed to this report. James Thorner can be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.