Some rural car dealerships say PR push saved them

Thomas McCaslin might never know for sure why General Motors called two weeks ago to say his 80-year-old dealership in the heart of Nebraska cattle country wouldn't close after all. He has a feeling that a hamburger cookout and an old-fashioned brand of political lobbying had something to do with it.

"There's no doubt in my mind" it helped, McCaslin said Thursday as about 200 residents gathered to celebrate the town's only GM dealership continuing to sell Chevrolets. "You have all these elected officials who make things happen because they depend on votes."

GM's reversal followed a massive letter-writing campaign and lobbying of elected officials that started with a cookout in the town square just days after Gateway Motors was told in May it would be among 1,300 in the country to close.

In many rural areas, GM dealerships once set to be casualties of the company's financial freefall find themselves part of its reformation after sending handwritten pleas and barbecue invites — including one that used GM's own "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet" slogan.

GM says its change of heart on about 50 dealerships it called underperforming wasn't based on those kinds of factors or any political arm-twisting.

Instead, GM spokeswoman Susan Garontakos said, the company realized it erred when analyzing the finances of the dealerships and reconsidered the distances between some dealers. Closing Gateway Motors, for example, would have meant people had to drive 60 miles to the closest GM dealer.

"In some cases, it may have been too far of a distance for customers to travel," Garontakos said. "Lobbying did not have anything to do with it."

GM dealers find that hard to believe, and credit a never-say-die attitude that spawned homespun marketing campaigns they say put them on the political radar.

Chrysler dealers set to close down, though, didn't have the same options. Not one decision to eliminate 789 franchises has been reversed, Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham said, because the closures were a result of bankruptcy proceedings.

GM's shift on some dealerships isn't likely to undo what it tried to achieve in bankruptcy proceedings, either. It still plans to close 200 more dealerships than originally estimated.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning filed objections to GM's bankruptcy plans on behalf of 42 states, winning some protections for dealers. He mentioned the Broken Bow dealership — the only one of about 20 scheduled to be closed in Nebraska that will stay open — when GM asked which ones deserved a second look.

"GM always said there was some subjectivity in the process," Bruning said at Thursday's celebration. "Broken Bow got on our radar screen because Thomas (McCaslin) and the residents of Broken Bow rang the bell," he added later.

Gov. Dave Heineman said he understands GM has to say it wasn't a matter of persuasion — "but they recognized there was something special ... about Broken Bow."

The Tri County La Junta dealership in Colorado is the only known dealership in that state to stay open after receiving a closure notice. It also got residents to write letters to politicians, and its owners traveled to Washington when Congress held hearings on GM.

Like Gateway, the dealership was one that Colorado politicians "ran up the flagpole" to GM during the bankruptcy case, said Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Auto Dealers' Association.

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