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The new dealership: Covington Ford to build new dealership on ByPass Road
After three years of negotiations, Wendell Crowe told The News Monday he will finally sign a land swap agreement Wednesday afternoon to eventually move his Covington Ford dealership from its U.S. Highway 278 location to the Covington ByPass Road.

Once the agreement is signed, Crowe will have exactly one year to complete construction of a new dealership at 9101 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and transfer all of his equipment, inventory and personnel. However, he will retain control of the current body shop and continue to operate it.

Anchor Properties will presumably buy six acres of land from the 216-acre site on the ByPass Road owned by Neely Farms Family Limited. It will then participate in the land swap, Crowe said, and proceed to lease the property to Walgreens, said Michael Ricke, Anchor's executive vice president. Whenever Covington Ford finally vacates its current location, Ricke said it will take about nine months to demolish the dealership and build and open the Walgreens.

Westall Architects are designing the new dealership and are hoping to have the building Gold LEED certified. LEED is a third-party certification program run by the U.S. Green Building Council and is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

The building will be 25,000 sq. ft. and contain a quick-lube type service, four truck stalls and 12 car service stalls. It will have around 230 total parking spaces.

According to the Newton County Tax Assessor's website, Crowe's 2.83-acre property is worth $639,100. The vacant 216-acre Neely Farms property, which used to contain a driving range, is listed at $2.16 million, though no public value has been yet calculated for the 6-acre section.

Crowe said he chose the new location because it fit within his budget and met Ford Motor Criteria's requirements for dealerships, including a sufficient traffic count. He and Ford also believe there the area is ripe for future development, he said.

"(Ford) used to want you to locate on the interstate, but now they want you in the community," Crowe said.

As far as leaving the current location, Crowe was frank, calling it an eyesore.

"We couldn't do anything to make this building look good. We need our lot to catch three-fourths of the eye on the road. Here people can't tell the difference between new cars, used cars or employee's cars," Crowe said.

In addition, the U.S. 278 location could no longer expand, being locked in by the highway, Elm St. and streams that run behind it. The ByPass Road location will offer plenty of possibility for expansion if it's ever needed.

LEED Dealership

Architect Jeff Westall said he originally planned to have the building LEED certified, but Crowe was the one who pushed for Gold or Silver certification, a higher level that requires more energy efficiency and sustainable features.

Westall said plans call for the building to reduce its use of drinking water by 50 percent, use high-efficiency LED interior light fixtures, use recycled content for flooring, use low chemical content paints and contain recycling stations for customers and employees. He is also exploring the use of solar panels to generate 10 percent of the dealership's electrical needs.

A customer lounge with skylights and a red-spectrum lighting system which would enhance the colors of the vehicles in the showroom will also be included.

"This is Ford's first LEED dealership in the company and they're very excited about that. We had two days of meetings in Dearborn, Mich., with Ford's energy team and architects. This will also be the first LEED dealership in Georgia, unless someone beats us there," Westall said.

"We've been told that Ford's senior management, including (President) Alan Mulally, has taken a personal interest in the project, as well as (Executive Chairman William) Clay Ford Jr. Sustainability and energy conservation and reducing carbon footprints, those are things that Ford Motor Co. is very interested in."

Ford spokesman Steve Kinkade said the company didn't track LEED status and couldn't confirm that Covington Ford would be the first LEED dealership. However, he said in 2010, Ford recently started a voluntary "Go Green" Dealer Sustainability Program to encourage dealerships to become more energy efficient. Kinkade said Ford leadership will be on hand when an event takes place, though he didn't have specifics at this time.

Long Time Coming

Crowe said negotiations originally began in 2007 or 2008, but have been stalled several times because of Walgreen's inability to secure funding and environmental hang-ups at the Shell station site.

In addition, Crowe had difficulty finding a new location. The Ford Motor Co. has to sign off on any dealership location, and it turned down several spots including one on Industrial Blvd. near the Covington Athletic Club and parcels off Ga. Highway 142 North near Home Depot, Wal-Mart and SKC.

However, the deal is finally coming together after Anchor Properties cleared its last two hurdles by receiving final Georgia Environmental Protection Division approval and by securing a zoning variance from the City of Covington Planning Commission in September for the old Shell Station site.

Speculation about Crowe's plans ran rampant during the past couple of months, starting when The News discovered Walgreens was working to acquire the former Shell gas station at the corner of Elm Street and U.S. 278.

In addition, land disturbance permits for a 6-acre site on the Covington ByPass Road were approved by the City of Covington Engineering Department June 28, and Covington Ford's name was attached to the documents, The News confirmed.

Crowe said he was pressed for information by customers and friends but was unable to share anything because he was under a gag order, having signed a preliminary agreement with Anchor Properties. However, despite the preliminary agreement, Crowe said he was never sure of the deal, which nearly fell through several times, and he never did sign a contract with Walgreens itself.

"I want everybody to understand that I was not telling lies. I didn't know if or when it would close. I wasn't telling stories," Crowe said Monday. "It got where we hated to go out to lunch because people were talking cynically about us."

Crowe said the past few years have been frustrating because the deal fell apart and restarted numerous times, even as recently as Spring 2010. However, less than a year from now, Crowe expects to be sitting in a brand-new, state-of-the art dealership.