MISHAWAKA — The Mishawaka Common Council voted 8-0 Monday to allow a use variance so that Gates Chevy World could hold an off-site car sale three times this summer at the north end of the University Park Mall parking lot.
It came over the objection of four competing car dealers in Mishawaka. And Mondays discourse remained one among gentlemen.
“I love the Gates family -- always have,” said Mike Leep Sr. of Gurley Leep Automotive.
His company’s chief operating officer, Don Reese, argued that it was less about unfair competition and more about the use of the property.
The circus-like atmosphere, including large tents, would degrade the competitor’s properties in the city, he said.
Leep said that “Gates would be able to post 15 or 20 yellow signs saying, ‘sale sale sale,’ which we cant do. That is a huge disadvantage to us.” He was referring to city ordinances that restrict balloons and banners from car dealership lots.
The city’s Board of Zoning Appeals had voted 3-1 to pass the issue along to the council without a recommendation. The city staff also didn’t offer a recommendation -- only that large balloons shouldn’t be allowed at the sale because that would violate an ordinance.
Gates had held a similar sale twice last summer at the same lot north of J.C. Penney, which has room for up to 350 cars. Gates had gotten a use variance then, too, since the mall’s C-2 commercial zoning doesn’t normally allow these sales. Competitors didn’t object last year because they didn’t know about the sale beforehand.
Like last year, Gates will lease the space from the mall, where general manager Steve Kempe said the sale led to no complaints and drew extra business to the stores inside.
The sales would come at the ripest time for sales -- in the warm months. And Leep pointed out that dealers typically go months earning nothing, then catch up in the summer.
But council member Gregg Hixenbaugh, D-at large, said, “When we start to manage who has the advantage over whom, we set a dangerous precedent.”
Council members agreed with the Gates officials’ argument that the event would draw extra business to the area. Last year’s sales drew 1,000 visitors, said Matt Helmkamp, dealer for Gates Chevy World.
Council members pointed out that off-site car sales are common and that the competitors would be able to hold the same sale, too.
“I don’t ever want to be up here for a use variance,” Reese replied about Gurley Leep’s dealership on Grape Road. “We love the property we have.”
Leep said that, by allowing this sale, it will open a Pandora’s box of other businesses that aren’t as local or professional as Gates.
Council member Mike Compton, D-5th, disagreed, saying he thinks the council will be able to review these sorts of requests and, he added,” I think we have a right to say no, on a case by case basis.”
Ron Banicki, D-6th, wondered, too, whether there’s some city process through which the competitors could get a variance to post banners at special times.
John Roggeman, D-at large, was absent.
Staff writer Joseph Dits: