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Junkers Blues

The city is cracking down on used-car dealers along Jeff Davis, but some say Richmond is running off viable businesses.

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Part obstacle course and part automotive necropolis, Mark's Automotive on Jefferson Davis Highway is not easy on the eyes. But despite its looks — half-stripped cars with missing doors and automotive guts spilling out are crammed fender-to-fender — it is all legal, owner Mark Newton says.

"I'm zoned M-1 — that's the only reason I'm safe," he says.

Newton, along with several other owners of used-car lots, repair shops and car- salvage yards that line Jeff Davis near the city limits, has faced recent efforts by city officials to shut him down. Such cleanup efforts are common around the country, according to industry experts: Local government intervenes to clean up what some see as undesirable businesses, but which nonetheless serve an underserved market.

Newton has fared better than most along Jeff Davis. His shop shares the block — and a protective zoning classification — with a nearby manufacturing facility.

"I haven't had any problems lately," Newton says, recalling a visit not too long ago from a city police officer, "a big fellow." He came to serve papers informing Newton of a city order requiring the removal and disposal of all cars on his lot lacking valid inspection stickers or license plates.

"But a few weeks later he came back and told me never mind," Newton says.

No such zoning protections shield Steve Konwerski, owner of C&P Auto Sales. "I've lost bunches of money, believe me," says Konwerski, who also played host recently to city officials bearing bad tidings.

Many of the dealers and repair shops along Jeff Davis cater to clients not likely to qualify for a test drive at Broad Street's new car lots. Most customers can't even afford CarMax. Bad or bruised credit issues make cars or quick-fixes at low-margin dealers or used-parts-dependent repair shops the best option for transportation.

Konwerski says he doesn't fault the city for its efforts, but disagrees with their methods and the extent to which they've gone in apparent efforts to clean up the Jeff Davis corridor. He tells of other dealers who were forced to move or close down, losing thousands of dollars when they were forced to dispose of inventory.

"I can see the city's situation — I just think they went overboard," he says, admitting that some of the cars he and others see as diamonds in the rough are to others little more than "eyesores."

Others owners are less forgiving.

"It's real Gestapo-style the way they did it," says one dealer who requested anonymity because he fears further crackdowns or reprisals. He recounted a parade of city officials from multiple departments, including fire, business licensing, building inspection and a Community Assisted Public Safety (CAPS) officer who used fine-toothed combs to search for perceived violations.

The experience cost him plenty. He says he lost thousands of dollars in inventory that he was required to have hauled away to the junkyard.

Similar treatment from the city forced Number One Auto Sales, another longtime Jeff Davis dealer, to move its operation to Chesterfield County.

City officials didn't respond to Style's request for comment by press time.

Providing affordable automotive options often requires mechanics with MacGyver-like skills who can patch and piece parts together. Franken-cars are the norm rather than the exception.

It's not always pretty, but it provides low-income drivers with affordable rides, C&P owner Konwerski says.

City efforts are putting artificial pressures on business, he says. "The cost of cars has to go up accordingly if I can't buy something reasonable to repair and sell it, you know?" Konwerski says.

Lots such as Konwerski's fill a large niche in the market, says George Hoffer, a professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, who specializes in auto industry affairs.

"Buy-here, pay-here [lots] clearly perform an economic function," Hoffer says. "It's a very viable segment."

And buying a Franken-car isn't necessarily a bad deal for consumers, Hoffer says, because of natural market and economic forces that put pressure on dealerships to provide vehicles that make it off the lot and beyond.

"It's so important to [dealers] that they sell a car that runs for at least as long as the payments are due," Hoffer says. "Once a car doesn't run — most people don't have money to both fix the car and make the payments — the payments end."

Ted Craig, managing editor of Used Car News, an industry-specific publication based near Detroit, doesn't think the city's efforts are healthy — or that they'll necessarily achieve the intended result.

"It's real common. Prince George County tried in the past two years," Craig says. "They had this idea that they wanted to get rid of the used-car dealers and basically wanted to attract things like art studios and things like that. They failed. They got sued."

The basic problem is that while looking over the unsightly hood of a rusty 1980 Chevy Caprice it's easy to lose sight of what these businesses do for the communities they're in. They provide jobs, commerce and tax revenue.

"You'd rather be known as the town with all the funky art shops," Craig says. "While it might be nice to think you can get this source of revenue from some more attractive business, the reality is these stores are functioning businesses. Basically, you're hoping to trade in the reality of one business for the hopes of another." S

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