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Business

Let's meet and greet with cars all around

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published April 20, 2007


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WESLEY CHAPEL - Rotary meets at the Toyota dealership. Republicans meet at Nissan. And remember the peace summit between the Salvation Army and critics of the proposed thrift store? Held at Mazda.

What better illustration of a community without a center than this: car dealerships as modern-day meeting houses.

Gathering people is no easy task in Wesley Chapel, a community whose hallmark has been to spread out.

"It's a major issue," says Jason Wilson, executive director of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, which is always on the lookout for places to hold events.

Lots of businesses have been filling that need. But dealerships are perhaps the most intriguing choice of places to meet, in part because they weren't exactly wanted here. At least not in the way they arrived, which was in droves.

A string of dealerships started arriving or announcing plans to arrive all around the same time, mostly on State Road 54 near Interstate 75. Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda, Pontiac, GMC and Buick all grabbed sites on the highway.

This led to the rise in 2005 of a citizens group called We Love Wesley Chapel, which made loving Wesley Chapel synonymous with disliking all those car dealerships. The group which held its first meeting at the clubhouse of the Lexington Oaks neighborhood worried about the effect of these businesses on their quality of life.

Ultimately, the group did not keep the dealerships out, but it did push successfully for a county ordinance that put certain restrictions on the auto dealers, including their use of outdoor lights.

Former chamber board chairwoman Alison Morano was one of the founders of We Love Wesley Chapel. Car dealerships now talk of being good neighbors, she pointed out.

"You can't be a better neighbor than offering us a place to meet," she said.

The gesture, of course, is rooted not just in neighborly motivations but also in pragmatic ones. Having people walking through your showroom to attend a meeting in a boardroom means ... people walking through your showroom. Checking out the inventory. Telling their friends about it.

"At some point, some of these people may want to buy a car," says Scott Fink, president of the Mazda and Hyundai dealerships in Wesley Chapel as well as the Hyundai in New Port Richey. "But that's a secondary motivation."

He and others, including Wesley Chapel Toyota president Corvin Morris, say their primary objective is to fill a need in the community they now call home.

Hyundai has a boardroom that could hold close to 100 people. So does the Toyota dealership.

Morris says he understands firsthand the challenges of finding a place to hold meetings. When he started setting up the dealership, he always struggled to find places to conduct training sessions or to talk with potential recruits.

"I was surprised at how difficult it was to find space," he says. "I was particularly moved by charities that didn't have a place to meet."

Interestingly, Wesley Chapel is home to one of the state's pre-eminent meeting places, Saddlebrook Resort. But those big fancy ballrooms are more typically part of a package sold to national corporations, which also put their employees up at the resort.

The local Greyhound Rescue group? Not likely to be holding a conference at Saddlebrook. But they can - and have - met in one of the boardrooms at Wesley Chapel Toyota. In the next month, Wesley Chapel may start finding a center. The county will be opening the first phase of a new recreation complex off Boyette Road.

Even so, Wesley Chapel groups may continue to deal with the gathering places they've been dealt. Fink's Hyundai dealership opened about a week ago, and he's already fielded calls. Not just about the cars, but also about his boardroom.

Jodie Tillman covers business. She can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 07:20:11]


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