Generations have tooled off the lots, overjoyed with their new wheels. Moms and dads, with tots in the back seat, have packed themselves into new wood-paneled station wagons. Spinsters, cash in hand, have hopped into sexy cruisers. All of them and many more have made their car dreams come true the Valley way - on East Sprague’s Auto Row.
The men and women helping to make those dreams a reality stand as witnesses to the changes, the growth and transformation of that cluster of dealerships stretched between Thierman and University. Some auto dealership owners learn of the row’s past from old stories, told by their parents or family relatives. Others know firsthand, and bridge the dirt roads to pavement, the memories to their children.
Now, with 20 different brands of vehicles represented, the Valley reaps the rewards of those decades of hard work, of financial sacrifice by owners and buyers alike. The heyday glory days have come at last, owners say, and there’s money - lots of money - to prove it.
The cold, hard facts
In 1995, the Valley’s auto dealerships, in the hands of nine owners, turned a combined $144 million in sales, generating $11.7 million in sales tax, according to the state Department of Revenue. That figure represents nearly 20 percent of all sales tax revenue generated in the Valley that year, says Margaret Smith, budget analyst for Spokane County Administrative Services.
Most of the dealerships - McCollum Ford, Barton Jeep-Eagle, George Gee Pontiac, Dishman Dodge, Honda of Spokane, Spokane Chrysler-Plymouth and Jaremko Nissan-Saab - report the number of people they employ and the number of cars they sell.
Ponderosa Acura does not disclose the number of cars sold each year. Neither does the Appleway Automotive Group, led by Tim and Brad Pring. However, Tim Pring did say Appleway sales represent 30 percent of all car sales in all of Spokane County.
Even without Appleway, with its nine franchises, 4,539 new cars - that’s more than 12 cars a day - rolled off East Sprague lots in 1995.
Behind Kaiser Aluminum, Central Valley School District, Hewlett Packard and Key Tronic, Auto Row is the Valley’s fifth largest employer, according to statistics provided by the Valley Chamber of Commerce. A total of 740 people work on the sales floors, and in the service and parts departments and owners say two-thirds of them live in the Valley.
Through the years
When driving down Sprague and passing the cache of dealerships, one can hardly envision the time when the road became home to John Pring Sr.’s Appleway Chevrolet in 1928. At the corner of Argonne and Sprague, where Farmers and Merchants Bank now stands, Pring began one of his family’s enterprises amid apple orchards and horse-drawn carriages. After saving his earnings as a Chevy salesman at Charles Stevens’ dealership, Pring bought his boss out and gained his first franchise.
Then, over the next six-and-a-half decades, came the others to gather along the row, capturing traffic and the attention of residents in search of a shiny new Nash Rambler, a spiffy Yugo and now a luxurious Lexus.
McCollum Ford came in 1944, first selling used cars, then adding Ford’s new car line in 1946. Dishman Dodge arrived in 1965 and Ponderosa Acura in 1976.
Many of the current makes joined the row under existing dealerships. McCollum Ford added Pontiac, Honda, Hyundai and Mitsubishi in 1986. But several years later, then-owner Margaret Richardson sold off all the franchises. The Ford franchise, sold to Gus Johnson, is the lone dealership still to bear the name of its founder, Harold McCollum.
Many owners say locating in the same area has much to do with convenience and priceless advertising.
“There’s strength in numbers,” says Gus Johnson, owner of McCollum Ford. “When people look in the paper for cars, they’re going to drive up and down this row.”
With all the added exposure, Johnson says the dealerships could save bundles on advertising, though, he says, no one seems to take advantage of that.
Dealerships grouped together makes shopping easier for customers, said Marti Waltermire, co-owner with her father, Mark Hollenback, of Dishman Dodge.
Says Hollenback, “We try to keep the place looking respectable. People pull in and say they were heading to Ford or another and we caught their eye.”
“I think economy of forces allows people to do some cross shopping,” says Ray Kish, owner of Honda of Spokane. If dealerships were spread out around the Valley, “the volume wouldn’t be as open to us. We draw from each other. We see more traffic than we’d normally see if we were just drawing traffic to ourselves.”
Starting as a child, Tim Pring learned the trade from his grandfather and father. After all, the little guy sold a car to his second-grade teacher.
Gus Johnson’s son, Jason, works in McCollum Ford’s service department and reports to the operations manager - not his father.
Mark Hollenback wishes he had brought his daughter, Marti Waltermire, into the business a lot sooner than he did.
The ties that bind these businesses through the years are family members, clinging tightly to their past, proud to bear a tradition as their own.
The Prings, long a presence in the Valley, continue to dominate the local car industry. Though quiet about numbers, they, as well as their competitors, know the family’s Appleway Automotive Group leads the Valley in car sales. Tim Pring and his brother Brad now run the daily operations at Appleway. Their sister, Sue Prince, is in charge of customer relations and personnel within the group. Their brother Jock owns a dealership, Lewis and Clark Motors, in Lewiston, Idaho.
In the background remains a family beacon, Jack Pring, the owner of the Appleway group. Ever present, Jack Pring keeps a watchful eye on the business his father started so many years ago. But he’s careful not to do too much. His children, he says, run the show now.
“We’ve been here three generations,” says Tim Pring. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
There are no special favors for family members in the business. Ask 27-year-old Jason Johnson. He works in the service department at McCollum Ford, owned by his father, Gus. He does not earn special privileges for being the owner’s son. No dad-approved days off, no extra pay. Jason is a McCollum employee, treated as such and no more.
“(This business) is really hard on young people … to get respect for their own ability,” says Gus Johnson. “If they excel, people think they got to do it because dad’s the boss and not on their own merit.”
Johnson thinks one day Jason will take over the helm of McCollum Ford. For now, Johnson is happy his son is learning the business from the basics - how to service the cars and the customers.
“We want our children to succeed and to provide something for them - even though they’ll have to pay for it,” Johnson says.
The founder of Dishman Dodge, Mark Hollenback, 83, now enjoys seeing his oldest daughter, Marti Waltermire learn the trade. It’s been two years since Hollenback named her co-owner - a move Hollenback says he should’ve done years ago. Before that, Waltermire worked in nursing management at Empire Health Services.
“If I could relive my life, I would’ve gotten her involved much, much earlier,” he says.
For Waltermire, the chance to get involved was a chance to give something back.
“This is out of respect for my dad,” she says. “He poured his blood, sweat and tears to build this business and hung on through good and bad years.” Now, she intends to do the same.
Waltermire’s son, Mark - who won the Spokane Valley’s first baby contest - now is general sales manager at Dishman. “Her son’s right behind her,” says Hollenback, a proud, confident grandfather. “Ten years from now, he might be in her place.”
Not looking to retire anytime soon, the 54-year-old Waltermire says her father’s business is going to stay in the family no matter what.
“Family’s always been number one for me. That’s just what it’s all about.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)