A city auto dealer has reason to stay

Expansion: A new Honda showroom demonstrates an auto dealer's commitment to the city.

April 17, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

To hear the owner of the city's major in-town automobile agency describe his family's experience, the past 50-odd years have been as steady as one of their big Oldsmobiles set on cruise control.

In a city where department stores, schools and libraries have shut their doors in the past decade - and residents sought new housing in the suburbs - the Mortimers, father and son, have believed and invested in an old-fashioned city neighborhood.

The ribbon-cutting tomorrow for a new $2 million Anderson Honda showroom at Howard and 25th streets culminates an expansion shaped by a philosophy that this location - not far from downtown Baltimore - is a good place to do business.

"In the mid-1980s, people were starting to leave the city. My father was of the opinion that the city had been good to us - that we'd grown and prospered," said Bruce Mortimer, 51, president of the Anderson Automotive Group, founded in 1919 and owned by the Mortimer family for 39 years.

"We had a lot of loyal customers. We had a lot of loyal employees. We made the decision to stay and expand," he said.

Mortimer, who lives in Phoenix, says he cannot recall a time in his life when his father, Bill Mortimer, who died in 1997, was not at work at his desk. Bruce Mortimer began his career here in 1967 as a summer worker in the parts department. He had just graduated from Dulaney High School.

The Anderson agency, which also sells Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Pontiacs and Chevrolets, employs more than 200 mechanics, body-shop technicians, salespersons and clerical workers spread over five buildings - and 10 acres - in the greater Charles Village-Remington section of North Baltimore.

"People downtown ought to get off the thought pattern that the city is no place to sell cars," said a competitor, Bill Ptaszynski, general manager of Miller Motors Buick, a dealership in Northeast Baltimore. "The Honda line is ideal for that location. The price range fits the area. I wish Bruce the best."

Dan Klocke, executive director of the Charles Village Benefits District, said: "We're incredibly excited he's investing more in our community. He's been generous to us - a guy who steps up to the plate, and he does it in a quiet way."

And while Mortimer estimated that he is one of the city's largest enduring retail sales operations - he sold 3,817 new and used cars last year, it was no easy task to expand.

To secure the land for the kind of free-standing showroom preferred by Honda of America officials, he had to deal with 14 separate landowners.

One by one, he negotiated and bought the houses and buildings, including an electrical company, a carryout, a shop that sold antique toys and a tavern. He received no city, state or federal assistance other than getting new concrete sidewalks installed.

There were contingencies. The Rendezvous Lounge had to have its liquor license moved to a location across 25th Street.

One woman, whose home faced Howard Street, didn't want to leave. She agreed to have Mortimer purchase her home, then give her lifetime tenancy rights. He tailored his complex around her property.

Each time he secured a property, he found the price of the next one had risen. He spent a total of $2 million in acquiring the land, he said.

Early in the expansion scheme, he acquired a key parcel - a 5-acre tract previously owned by the CSX railroad, whose freight-only tracks parallel 26th Street. That lot, now paved and landscaped at its edges, holds the bulk of Anderson's 700-car car inventory.

"The same amount of land would have been less costly in Baltimore County, but I don't regret my decision to build," Mortimer said. "It's been our goal to have the quality of our facilities and our people be as good as any our customers would find anywhere."

Indeed, his customers have been going to 25th Street since 1949, when Bruce Mortimer's father, Bill Mortimer, started selling cars for dealer A. D. Anderson, who started a Hudson Motor Co. franchise here.

"I much prefer Anderson - their parts people are marvelous," said John Dahne, who lives in Baltimore County's Riderwood and has dealt with the firm since the 1980s.

"One day my car was being serviced and I was waiting for their shuttle to take me to work downtown. Bill Mortimer drove up and saw me standing there. He handed the keys to his car to an employee and told her to drive me to my job."

The original agency, at 115 W. 25th St., had been an electric streetcar barn. The present-day service bays are located in the old trolley car stalls. In the 1950s, the building became an Oldsmobile agency. By 1987, it had captured the top national record for Oldsmobile sales.

Anderson also bought three well-established city auto dealerships - Jarman Pontiac-GMC truck in 1987 (its Remington Avenue showroom is now his body shop), Pat Hays Buick (a casualty of the University of Baltimore's expansion in Mount Vernon) in 1991 and Luby Chevrolet Honda, a Highlandtown dealership in the 3300 block of E. Monument Street, in 1994.

"Our neighborhood was deteriorating badly," said Betty Waghelstein, Luby's former owner. "We could not find a spot to move. ... I admire Bruce's decision to stay in the city."

Said Bruce Mortimer: "As others [auto dealerships] moved out, there was an opportunity to make a respectable living. ... I can't imagine the city devoid of an automobile dealership."

In 1957, for example, there were more than 70 large and small automobile dealers listed in the city phone directory. Today, there are about a dozen agencies remaining in Baltimore. Many carry more than one line of car and many are clustered near the Baltimore County line.

His only regret, Mortimer said, is that General Motors is phasing out the Oldsmobile, the car that put the family dealership on the map. "There's a lot of heartaches among Oldsmobile dealers," he said as he walked through his new showroom.

"But I feel blessed for all the opportunities that God has given my father and me," Mortimer said.

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