2017-02-10 / Front Page

Yankee Ford to get $4 million makeover

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

A 3-D mock-up of how the front of Yankee Ford, located at 165 Waterman Drive in South Portland, will look following a $4 million makeover slated to begin later this year shows how a new display tower will look when seen from the Casco Bay Bridge. (Courtesy image) A 3-D mock-up of how the front of Yankee Ford, located at 165 Waterman Drive in South Portland, will look following a $4 million makeover slated to begin later this year shows how a new display tower will look when seen from the Casco Bay Bridge. (Courtesy image) SOUTH PORTLAND — When the South Portland City Council adopted the Mill Creek Master Plan in 2015, the 114-page vision for transforming the city’s downtown commercial area into a vibrant, mixed used community, included a map that replaced the Yankee Ford car dealership with apartment buildings and an expansive green space.

At the time, Planning Director Tex Haeuser stressed the map was merely a presentation of possibilities – an imagining of what could be accomplished under newly proposed zoning rules. The city was not trying to force out any existing business in its effort to repopulate parking spots with people and parks, he said. Now, two years later and with those new zoning rules in place, it’s clear Yankee Ford is not going anywhere.

Dealership owner Bob Esposito said this week he plans a $4 million makeover of his lot, due to go under the shovel later this year. The front of the 1968 building, put up by original dealership owner Dick Wolfe, will come down, he said, to be replaced by a two-story structure featuring a new showroom on the ground floor and offices up top. The service garage will be expanded with eight new service bays and redesigned to include a new drive-thru service. Total floorspace for the business is slated to increase from a little more than 28,000 square feet to 40,000, Esposito said.

Meanwhile, although some elected officials have in the past complained about the car lot being the first image of South Portland people get as they drive across the Casco Bay Bridge, plans call for an attention-grabbing display tower to spotlight new models, as well as a double-decker platform that will put Yankee Ford’s inventory level with the bridge off ramp. That garage may come in Phase II of the project, and be a few years away, but Espositio calls it, “a definite at some point.”

“At some point we’ll have to make that move, because there’s no place else to go but up. There’s no land for me to buy that’s close by that I can add on to,” Esposito said. “But the tower is a definite and something we’re pretty excited about. The feedback so far (from city officials) has been good.”

Esposito said he has shared his plans with city officials, although he has not yet submitted a formal site plan.

“I’m definitely where I want to be,” Esposito said. “When we made the decision to buy this place, my partner and I, we considered moving but we both concluded the same thing – if we go out to where the other dealers are, in Westbrook, or near the (Maine) Mall, yeah, there’s more drive-by traffic, while here, since the reconfiguration of the bridge, we’re kind of hidden and out of the way, but here we’re also more exclusive. This part of South Portland, we draw on Cape Elizabeth, parts of Scarborough, and the phenomenal growth on the east end of the peninsula in Portland. These are all people who’d rather not fight the traffic to get their car to service. We’re in the middle of an extreme customer base. So, we feel like this is the best location for us.”

“We did get contact (from city officials) asking for our thoughts in selling this property,” Esposito added, referencing the Mill Creek Master Plan. “But we’ve had zero push back from the city. They’ve been completely on board and open with anything we’ve wanted to do so far. I think they’re just encouraged for us to clean this place up, to bring it up to speed, and up to date. I think what we’re doing will fit in well with what they hope to accomplish here.”

Among the changes at Yankee Ford will be new LED lighting. Apart from being more energy efficient, the new lights are expected to be less obtrusive to nearby residents.

“The way things are now, I admit, when you fly in overhead to the jetport, it’s like looking at a football field,” Esposito said. “Right now, I don’t even run all of the lights I have because, at times, we’ve had complaints from as far away as the west end of Portland. And I can see why. But with these new lights, we’ll reduce the number of poles by half, and the light will be more directed. So, while the lot will still be nice and bright, we’re confident it will be much, much better for any apartments or condos that might be built nearby.”

Esposito, 65, joined Yankee Ford as a salesman in 1982, straight out of a stint in the Marines, rising to general sales manager two years later, becoming a vice president seven years later. After a short four-year retirement, Esposito returned as a minority owner in 2008 with an eye to eventually owning the business, along with two sister sites in Brunswick and Rockland. That sale was finalized one year ago, in February 2016, for about $15 million. Espositio said he and a business partner have plans to invest $10 to $12 million refurbishing all three dealerships.

Of the three though, South Portland is the clear champion in terms of annual sales.

From 350 new vehicles sold in 2014, Yankee Ford has grown in just two years to 936 temp plates sent rolling off the lot. That ranked it as the No. 2 select Ford dealership in the nation for 2016. What’s more, it only fell four vehicles short of the top seller, according to Dan Brubach, Yankee Ford’s fixed operations director – and that’s because the winning Texas dealership ran 60 vehicles through its used car lot, essentially selling them to itself.

Yankee Ford’s sales growth is such that, come July, it will transfer from being a select Ford dealership, to a contact dealership, a status reserved for high-volume preferred dealers, Esposito said.

“Being a contact dealer, we’ll have a lot more direct access to Ford,” he said. “In addition to monthly contact from a regional sales manager, from a customer standpoint, we’ll have a little more leverage with Ford, as far as helping with things that are out of warranty and things like that.”

Esposito said he is planning to augment his workforce of 58 full-time and 12 parttimers, in both sales and service. But that’s not something that will wait until after the renovation. He needs them now.

“We’re looking at 10 to 15 people,” he said. “We need some salespeople, yes, but also technicians and body people. I’d hire them today if I could get them, but I can’t get them. It’s so competitive. It’s unbelievable. Everybody needs technicians.

Esposito said most of those service and body repair jobs start at $17 per hour, with the potential of as much as $30 per hour after “seven or eight years,” with full training and certification.

“We’re looking for everything from entry level to master certified technicians,” Esposito said. “If someone can change oil, change tires, basic things like that, we’ll train them and turn them into a quality technician. But in the body shop, we’re not even looking for any experience. We just want people who are willing to work. Someone could walk in off the street and if they have that willingness, I’ll open them up at $15 in the body shop, pay a lot of money to train them, and within 2-3 years they could be making $25 if they put in any effort at all.”

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