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By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWNâ€”Ed Tarbox stands on the showroom floor of his brand-new car dealership on Quaker Lane in North Kingstown Friday afternoon and, for a moment, pondered all the obstacles he had to overcome during the past nine years to make the 49,000-square foot complex a reality.
It is the day before the official grand opening celebration.
When Tarbox first considered moving here from Post Road in 2004, he had no idea how much a stagnant economy would hurt automobile sales or how big a hit the Toyota brand itself would take thanks to a country-wide recall and resulting public relations nightmare. He certainly didnâ€™t anticipate the effect a series of natural disasters in Japan and Thailand would have on every aspect of his business.
Admitting to many sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling, Tarbox says, â€śI got very familiar with that spot above my bed wondering if I was doing the right thing.â€ť
Besides national and international concerns, his plans faced local resistance. A series of water supply issues made progress so slow it took four years for Tarbox to make it from the planning departmentâ€™s pre-application phase to actual ground-breaking.
Through it all, Tarbox says, the temptation to leave North Kingstown was thereâ€”the adjacent Town of East Greenwich was just one community receptive to his business relocating thereâ€”but Ed couldnâ€™t abandon the only place his family business has called home for nearly 80 years.
And if you wonder how important that legacy is, stop by the showroom and look up. Pictures recalling the long relationship of Tarbox businesses and North Kingstown decorate the lobby walls and nearby corridors. Thereâ€™s also an art piece: a painted service station representing eight decades of the familyâ€™s business history.
â€śFrankly, this town is where we wanted to be,â€ť Tarbox explains. â€śAnd because the town manager [Michael Embury] and the town planner [Jon Reiner] encouraged us to stay the course, we did. We had other options and we chose to stay here because North Kingstown is where my familyâ€™s from.â€ť
The relocated Tarbox dealership has been open slightly less than two months and, already, business is booming. In addition to selling over 200 new and used cars since the move, Tarbox estimates that his service department completes nearly 200 repairs a day.
Given the locationâ€™s proximity to two major highwaysâ€”itâ€™s on Route 2 with Route 4 a stoneâ€™s throw awayâ€”the potential for growth at the largest Toyota dealership in Rhode Island is even more dramatic. Itâ€™s the reason Tarbox chose to move.
â€śThe new concept for car dealers to survive is you canâ€™t just serve the local communities,â€ť he notes. â€śA car dealership needs to attract business from, say, Warwick, Cranston, Johnstonâ€ť and you need convenient highway access.
Add to that the fact that at the former Post Road location the dealership was spread out over four buildingsâ€”each housing a separate part of the businessâ€”and itâ€™s easy to see why Tarbox spent so much time planning the details on his new digs.
From the start, it had to be just right.
Gone was the standard face of the automotive showroom. For instance, the sales staff works at round tables rather than desks to promote a friendly atmosphere; sales managers are adjacent so they, too, can interact with customers.
There are other details that Tarbox feels set his operation apart. Among them are a section where customers can sit quietly while they vehicles are serviced, a snack area, play space for children, free internet access, a glass elevator connecting all three floors, and even a small salon offering manicures while you wait.
Tarbox is optimistic about the success of his new venue.
â€śIâ€™ve got two fantastic brands [he also owns a Hyundai dealership in Warwick] and it didnâ€™t take Toyota long to bounce back,â€ť he states, adding, â€śthe industry is far from where it needs to be.â€ť Last year, he says, Rhode Island auto sales doubled from 35,000 to 70,000. He expects that figure will reach 45,000 this year but it still falls short.
â€śWeâ€™re already the number one Toyota dealer in the state of Rhode Island,â€ť he says proudly, â€śand this year weâ€™re going to equal our best year at the old store. Already the facility is paying for itself.
â€śItâ€™s a great feeling until the mortgage comes due every month.â€ť