After more than 20 years, Harbor Buick GMC is closing its Portage location at 6100 U.S. 6 after selling the property and consolidating its business at its Michigan City dealership.
The 12-acre dealership, with a 50,000-square-foot showroom and service center, had offered more than 200 new Buick and GMC cars, trucks and SUVs, which are being returned to General Motors or transferred over to Harbor Chevrolet Buick GMC in Michigan City.
Gino Burelli, one of the dealership owners, said the property has been sold to a buyer who's expected to open a new retail operation there early next year.
"I have sold the facility," Burelli said. "Another owner will take its place."
Burelli said he had no concerns about the Portage location, but said the automotive retail business has fundamentally changed to the point it no longer made sense to have two dealerships carrying the same vehicles so close to one another.
"By carrying the same franchises 10 to 12 miles apart in a common market, we're diluting ourselves," he said. "As time has gone on, the sales numbers don't support two locations."
Over the past 10 years, customers are more likely to find the car they want online and travel further to a dealership that has it, he said.
"People buy a lot on the internet and it has changed the car business and the way most businesses do business," Burelli said. "People find a competitive price online that will motivate them, and they're driving in from everywhere to buy a car. The internet has changed that dynamic. It's pretty mobile."
Harbor Buick GMC emailed its customers, many of whom have shopped at both dealerships over the years, to let them know that sales, service and parts have been moved to Michigan City. The dealership also tried to transfer as many of its 40 employees as possible to the dealership at 9911 W 300 N in Michigan City.
"We tried to cut the job losses as much as possible and move over as many people as possible to Michigan City," he said. "But just because you offer someone a job there doesn't mean they're going to take it. Some employees live in Lake County and don't want to travel the extra distance."
Harbor Buick GMC has been moving cars off the Portage lot and is now finishing up servicing the cars in its bays.
"We're finishing up services and returning the cars back to their owners. We won't take any more at this location," he said. "We're referring customers to the Michigan City location."
They chose to close Portage instead of Michigan City because a buyer stepped forward to purchase the Portage property, Burelli said.
Portage residents have expressed concern about the future of the U.S. 6 commercial corridor, with Lowe's also closing and the Sears appliance and hardware store facing an uncertain future because of Sears' bankruptcy.
"Portage is facing what many cities across America are facing. We must address the fast-changing retail environment to keep up," Portage City Councilman Collin Czilli said. "Portage needs to work with the business community to plan for store closures when they happen. We need to be prepared to help bring in new tenants. The worst thing for a city is vacant buildings."
As more shopping gravitates online, Czilli said it's time for the city to rethink U.S. 6.
"There has been a mistaken belief that big box retail is what is needed along U.S. 6," Czilli said. "That is flawed and outdated thinking. We need to update our city's master plan and adjust accordingly in this area. What worked 20 years ago won't work today."