By Brenda Showalter, The Republic

bshowalter@therepublic.com

    In Tom Mueller's 35 years owning a car dealership, he has never seen a downturn in the automotive market as severe as now. 

    It came close during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, but this year is worse. Mueller said his business is down about 25 percent from one year ago, as consumers delay buying cars. "Unless it's an absolute necessity, they're not going to do anything," Mueller said.

   Local new and used car dealers are feeling the effects from the nationwide auto, financial and credit crisis. 

    "All small businesses are bearing the brunt of the mistakes made by big businesses," Mueller said. 

    "Nobody is going to give me a bailout." 

    Mike Wiese, owner of Wiese Auto Outlet in Taylorsville, and Lisa Hurley, dealer principal of Renner Motors, also say business is down about 25 percent from one year ago. 

    "We were going along pretty well until recent months when the whole industry slowed down," Wiese said. 

    He is seeing less showroom traffic and more caution among potential buyers. 

    "It's a tougher market out there," Hurley said. "It's no secret what's going on."

Local closings

   Columbus already has seen some of the effects of the industry turmoil. 

    Dave Burt recently sold his Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership on National Road to Bob Poynter, who also owns a Ford dealership in Seymour. 

    Poynter said car buyers are reserved right now, but sales at the Chrysler dealership have been good. 

    In Seymour, business is down about 25 percent from a year ago, he said. 

    Burt told The Republic this month that he also would either sell or close his Hyundai dealership because he could not obtain bank loans to stay in operation. 

    Columbus saw another major auto dealer go under before the crisis hit. 

    John Hubler Nissan on Jonathan Moore Pike filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and closed in December 2007. 

    Mueller, 71, said he plans to stay in business, operating from his high-profile corner at 17th Street and Central Avenue. 

    He keeps 12 to 20 cars on his lot and said repeat customers account for about 80 percent of his business. 

    The office also acts as a morning hangout for friends to drink coffee and talk about the country's economic woes. 

    Mueller said he is not in favor of a bailout of the auto industry because he believes greed and overspending put the market where it is today. 

    He also disagrees with the practices of some financial institutions that gave auto loans for up to 125 percent of a car's value. 

    Even today, the local credit crunch is not as severe as some think, Mueller said, noting that some buyers can qualify for car loans up to six years long. 

    "Columbus is in much better shape than most places," Mueller said. 

    "It's like when we had the flood. People came together." 

    Wiese said he favors the federal government providing financial assistance to auto manufacturers during this crisis. 

    "It's not a bailout. It's a loan," Wiese said, adding that too many jobs and businesses are tied to the industry to let it fail.

Nervous consumers 

    Hurley said discouraging national economic news is taking a toll on consumers. 

    "I think the news is making everyone nervous," she said. 

    "People think none of the banks have money to lend, but they do. They're just stricter on requirements." 

    Poynter agreed. 

    "The banks are wanting to loan money to people," he said. "If you've got mediocre to good credit, we can get you a loan." 

    Hurley said she has seen some increased interest in used cars, but given the incentives and deals on new cars, they are the better bargains. 

    "It's definitely a buyer's market," Hurley said. "If you want to buy a car, this is definitely the time." 

    Wiese said he also has found financing for most people wanting to buy a car, often with local banks. 

    Manufacturers also are sweetening deals, including Toyota offering 0 percent financing. 

    "I've never seen as good deals as we have now," Wiese said. 

    Lower gasoline prices have rekindled interest in trucks and sport utility vehicles. 

    But even with more affordable fuel, buyers still want the Honda Accord gas-electric hybrid, Hurley said, adding that the cars typically are sold before they reach the lot. 

    Hondas, in general, are some of Renner's top selling vehicles. 

    Hurley said Renner will stay in business despite the market downturn, but changes had to be made. 

    A remodeling project was put on hold, and budgets for advertising and sponsorships were trimmed. 

    "We have a lower overhead," she said. 

    Mueller said he recently cut two part-time employees, leaving himself as the only full-time worker. His son, Tom Mueller Jr., a local insurance agent, also helps at the business. 

    Mueller plans to keep doing what he's doing and hopes the market bounces back. 

    He doesn't plan to close any time soon, but believes other dealerships will. 

    "You'll have fewer dealers when this is over."

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