Revitalizing Harlem: An auto mall for Black-owned dealerships

It has been a little more than a generation since Harlem has had any new-car dealerships. But toward the end of February, a batch of 60 vehicles rolled off the trucks at the Chevrolet-Saturn and Cadillac-HUMMER dealerships at Second Avenue between 127th and 128th streets. And on the first of March, a number of notable Harlemites were on hand to check out the new HUMMERs and Corvettes.

?Our grand opening went off without a hitch,? said Otis Thornton, owner and operator of the Chevrolet-Saturn dealership. ?This is my second GM dealership. I have one in East Brunswick, N.J. Having a new dealership in this historic community is just another example of GM?s commitment to the urban market.?

Thornton, who has been with GM since 1974 and who, for three years, has been honored by Black Enterprise magazine as a Top 100 Auto Dealer, said he anticipates hiring some 50 to 75 employees for a variety of jobs. ?And the Harlem community and its residents will be well-represented here,? he promised. ?Somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of my employees will be recruited from Harlem.?

One of Thornton?s employees is Ronald Prioleau, a service adviser. ?The dealership will add to Harlem?s bustling neighborhoods,? said Prioleau, who will be making sure customers? complaints are handled promptly and properly. ?I?ve been with automotive companies in the past who have not really reached out to minorities, but things are going to be different with us.?

U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of New York said, ?I am so pleased to have Otis Thornton as the new owner of the Chevrolet and Saturn dealerships. This announcement is another step toward revitalizing and energizing this great community. This is exactly what I had in mind when I developed the Empowerment Zone legislation.?

Craig Lee, president and executive manager of Potamkin Cadillac-HUMMER of Harlem, made a similar pledge. ?We definitely are concerned about making sure that a good percentage of our employees are from minority communities and Harlem,? he said. ?I plan to have from 75 to 100 employees here with a very strong minority representation. Already my sales manager and my office manager are from Harlem.?

Scott Mackie, General Motors? Northeast regional general manager, says Harlem?s proximity to the Triboro Bridge, FDR Drive and connecting roadways had long been on GM?s radar screen for new franchises. ?Some 350,000 vehicles a day pass the Harlem Auto Mall, traveling to Queens, the Bronx, and the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and lower Connecticut. It is an ideal location for auto retailing,? he said.

Against the gloomy reports about GM layoffs, a new dealership in Harlem puts a fresh gloss of optimism on the slumping auto industry. ?Our new dealership and the layoffs are not related,? said Thornton. ?They have nothing to do with each other because what we have here is a win-win situation. This dealership is just another part of GM?s increase of domestic franchises.?

Although the two dealerships are only a few inches apart, both Lee and Thornton believe it will be a mutually rewarding experience and they will feed off each other. ?I don?t foresee any problems at all,? Lee said.

But as the finishing touches are put on the Harlem complex, an organization representing minority new-car retailers is criticizing General Motors and other carmakers for, in its view, not doing enough to ethnically and racially diversify their dealer ranks. The National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, based in Lanham, Md., says on its Web site, ?People of color represent more than 32 percent of the population, purchase 15 percent of new and certified used cars and trucks in America and yet ethnic minorities represent less than 5 percent of the majority owners of dealerships in the United States.?

The group wants carmakers to commit to a ?blueprint? for reaching a 15 percent majority-ownership of their retail network by minorities.