For many years, Forest City was known as Little Detroit. We had a car lot on every corner, but the car business is still a bedrock of the local economy and although the virus crisis has slowed business, dealers are still dealing and cars are still rolling off lots.
Universal Auto's Mike McPherson said his crew has stayed on the job, but sales are 60-65 percent off.
"We're a finance lot, so we're still seeing a lot of people and payments are steady, but sales are off. We haven't had any layoffs," McPherson said of the five employees who work there. He said he had heard of other dealerships that are laying off many workers.
"We've got 300 customers, a lot of them repeat, many of them good friends. We're gonna get through this and be okay," he said.
He said the current situation is very different from the gas shortage of the mid-1970's when he was first getting into the business.
"Back then you couldn't give away a Pontiac Grand Prix. That was a $5000 car. People were still buying little cars. You could get a VW for $1995," McPherson said.
He also talked about the joy of the work. "It's more a way of life than a job. Back in the day people had a bad taste for used car salesmen. You don't have to lie to sell a car. If something goes wrong with a car, you work with people to make it right. Johnny Harris used to say every time you sell a car, the thrill is the same as it was 25 years ago. I and the other guys here feel the same way. You get to be personal with people and make friends."
Repeat customers always tell a positive story.
Paul Deck at McCurry-Deck Chevrolet Buick GMC had similar things to say about the joy of the work.
"I've always liked meeting the people in the community and helping them out. We meet lots and lots of people. We meet all kinds, which makes it interesting," Deck said.
Deck put his dealership in the mid-range of damage from the virus crisis. He said he has heard from other dealers that the impact has been much worse, but others are getting by with a little less impact.
For McCurry-Deck the worst hit has come in the service department. He said, "We've offered pick up and delivery and that has helped some, but the service business is definitely down."
Shawn Moore of Moore's Auto Sales said his company is getting through the slow down, "Day by day."
Has he seen it worse?
"Gas prices went way up in '06 and "07. People were bringing in big trucks and SUV's and wanting to trade them for smaller cars. Then they got used to the higher gas prices and wanted their trucks and SUV's back," Moore said.
Moore's father started the business 40 years ago and "always taught us not to spend more than we make. We're gonna be all right. People aren't coming in right now just because they just want to trade. It's more of a need thing. But we're still selling cars. We've got a good economy, but we need people to get back to work. Once people have money in their pockets, we'll be fine."
He also talked about the joy of the business.
"When you can put a smile on somebody's face, when they roll from here with a good clean car that's new to them, it's a good feeling," Moore said. "Everybody likes something new."
Misty Pruett at Mike's Auto Sales said business is slower, but they are doing fine. Repeat customers are the backbone of their 45-year-old business.
"Yes," she said. "I've sold three cars this week and all three were repeat customers."
Misty's father-in-law, Mike Pruett started the business. He's retired now and his son, Robbie runs the lot with Misty.
"I came here to help out with the office work when my little boy was born in 2017. I brought him with me. He's almost three now and into everything. When he found out he could open the door and head out faster than I could catch him, I had to start taking him to the babysitter. He still comes with me sometimes on weekends."
A former county school and health department employee, she said, "I love working with the public and helping people. The car buying experience can be very stressful and people tell me that I make it stress free and easy."
As to the current slowdown, she said, "Stimulus checks have helped a lot."
John Sisk at Sisk Ford says the slowdown has hurt, especially in the service department, but he says they are sterilizing and cleaning everything to assure customer and employee safety.
But cars are selling and moving off the lot.
"Things will get back to normal when all this is over," he said. After 14 years in the business, he is really grateful to repeat customers.
"Great customers and great employees are the whole thing. You're only as good as the people around you; and we've got a great team. You just have to do what you have to do to make it work. We've had mechanics working on our remodel and salespeople painting. Everybody is pitching in to get through this thing."