Detroit's downfall hits home in Raleigh

ASHEBORO - Michael Sperber, president of Asheboro Ford, has his office stocked with trophies from amateur racing.It's a hobby he loves, but he has given it up for now. It would send the wrong message, he says, to keep up the costly pursuit when he's had to lay off six employees.

Sales are down at the dealership, about 70 miles west of Raleigh, and have been for months. Thursday was painfully slow; the first sale didn't come until after 4 p.m.

Sperber tries to stay upbeat.

"Momentum breeds momentum," he says. "It's an attitude. If you're going to sell cars, you need a positive one."

Dealers are on the front lines of the auto industry, the link between automakers and their customers. They have already sustained a barrage of attacks in the past year -- starting with high fuel costs that sapped sales of profitable sport utility vehicles. Then tighter credit made it harder for some customers to buy. The worst recession in a quarter century has further depressed demand.

For dealers, especially those who sell General Motors, Ford and Chrysler vehicles, the pain likely is not over.

Congress may begin debating a bill as early as today that would give domestic automakers at least $15 billion in loans. Ultimately, auto executives hope to get as much as $34 billion.

No matter the outcome in Washington, fallout is a certainty at dealerships nationwide. In plans to revamp their operations, the chiefs of the Big Three companies have talked of eliminating brands and trimming dealer networks.

The implications are significant. Dealerships are integral to the fabric of communities, not just stores for cars and trucks.

In North Carolina alone, 695 new car dealers employ 33,000 and have an annual payroll of $1.51 billion, according to industry estimates.

They support little league teams, schools and civic groups, pumping about $8 million a year into such causes in North Carolina.

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