Auto auction squeezes farmers in Lancaster Co.

It has saved more land than it is using up, one family says

September 02, 2001|By Diane Mastrull | Diane Mastrull,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MANHEIM, Pa. - In the heart of this Lancaster County farming community are 168 acres of some of the richest soil in America.

On top of it is asphalt. And on top of that, 10,000 used cars and trucks waiting to be sold.

On sunny days at the Manheim Auto Auction, the glare from the vast meadow of metal and glass is blinding. At night, 200 security lights towering as high as 100 feet set the sky ablaze and overpower the stars.

Finding the Big Dipper is not about to get any easier.

If auction management gets its way, the operation will soon more than double in size, spreading onto an adjacent 268 acres of farmland. Already one of the world's largest wholesale auto auctions, it would be able to accommodate 20,000 vehicles on a stretch of blacktop equal to six King of Prussia malls.

And if local officials reject the plan? They've been warned they'll be eating dust as the auction pulls out.

In many a community, that ultimatum would meet with a rousing "good riddance." But in this rural niche nine miles north of Lancaster, most people have come to accept, if grudgingly, a hard fact of new-age agrarian life: To afford to keep farming, they must give ground, literally, to asphalt and autos.

Feeding the economy

Even as it consumes the good earth, the auction - grossing $4 billion a year - feeds the local economy. With a payroll of nearly 2,000, it is Penn Township's major source of full- and part-time jobs, notably for farmers who need extra cash to support their spreads.

And these days, there are few who don't.

Longtime farmers with 90 acres given over to corn, grains and Angus cattle, Art and Nancy Waltz recall getting $5.40 for a bushel of wheat in the 1970s. Now they're lucky to see $2.

So each week they put in a couple of days at the auction - she as a cafeteria worker and he as an arbitrator settling price disputes. Their son Jan is an auctioneer, moving as many as 100 cars a half-hour.

By providing supplemental income that keeps farms like theirs alive, the auction "basically has saved more land than it is using up," Nancy Waltz, 61, said.

The planned expansion - which would swallow the farm where she was born - has its opponents. They are a small but vocal band, fed up with the traffic, the lights, and the relentless erosion of the region's pastoral character.

Among them is Nancy Waltz's sister, to whom the auction is an "invasive monster."

"We welcome corporate America," said Carol Hummer, 51, a marketing consultant. "But the common-sense approach is not more asphalt. You can't plant seed on blacktop."

No, but you can raise a cash cow, as Joe Lutz will attest.

On a typical Friday, the auction's busiest day, 3,000 dealers from 20 countries snap up 6,000 vehicles. Meanwhile, over at Joe's Famous Wings & Weiners, owner Lutz is selling 700 cups of lemonade (at $2 each) and 160 pounds of wings.

As little more than a gigantic parking lot, the auction contributes only $50,000 in property taxes to the township's $1.5 million budget. But to residents such as Lutz, that's beside the point.

Ancillary businesses

The auction has breathed life into hundreds of ancillary businesses. Within a five-mile radius are more than 100 auto-reconditioning shops, a half-dozen hotels and motels and twice as many restaurants. That cinderblock box under construction? A windshield repair shop.

Ka-ching is a welcome sound in the community laid low in the 1970s, when its previous major industry - Raybestos-Manhattan, maker of brake linings - began sinking in a sea of asbestos litigation.

The auction filled that vacuum, and more.

When local civic groups go looking for a handout, they rarely are turned down. Last year, the auction dispensed $400,000, including $12,000 for two Polish exchange students and $57,000 for the local farm show.

Were the auction to leave, "it would be a real blow economically - no two ways about it," said Scott Shank, the only one of three township supervisors to oppose the expansion. "Would it take us a while to recover? Big time. But we would recover."

Joe Lutz has a different take.

"If Manheim Auto Auction would move," he said unequivocally, "there would be no Manheim, Pa."

The auction was founded in the mid-1940s by a few local car buffs and was bought in 1968 by Cox Enterprises. The Atlanta communications giant owns two other auto auctions in the Philadelphia area - Hatfield and Bordentown. But Manheim is the star.

"There isn't a car dealer in the United States of America that doesn't know who the Manheim Auto Auction is," said Greg Gehman, general manager.

Its voracious appetite for land developed only in the last decade, as the popularity of leasing pumped more and more used vehicles onto the market.

Four times since 1988, Penn Township officials have obliged the auction by rezoning farm tracts for commercial use. So it has grown, 20 acres here, 30 there.

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