Mechanics back at work fixing cars in Oak Harbor

Ray Sizemore and Joel Mami stand inside the recently refurbished garage of what was formerly Frontier Chevrolet on SE Pioneer Way.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Ray Sizemore and Joel Mami stand inside the recently refurbished garage of what was formerly Frontier Chevrolet on SE Pioneer Way.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

From the ashes of Oak Harbor’s new car dealership industry, two local businessmen are hoping a little reshaping of the wheel will serve to fill a niche in the collapsing market and put people back to work as well.

Longtime industry leader Joel Mami and property owner Ray Sizemore have teamed up to launch Pioneer Automotive Services, a full service repair shop located in the same building that once housed Frontier Chevrolet, a downtown mainstay for more than half a century.

The business, which will service all makes of new and used vehicles, is scheduled to open its doors Monday.

According to Mami, the idea behind the business is to fill a void left by the city’s crumbling new car industry. Since 2008, three of the four dealerships in town have gone out of business. The single holdout is Oak Harbor Motors on SE Pioneer Way.

“Like everyone else, we want to keep this in the community,” Mami said.

As a former service manager for two of the closed dealerships, Mami said he wasn’t about to try and succeed where others have failed. But he recognized an opportunity when he saw one. The dealerships offered some of the best repair services in the city, and with so many highly qualified mechanics now floating around jobless, the math was simple.

“It’s filling a huge gap,” he said.

Sizemore, the owner of the Frontier Chevrolet lot, didn’t take much convincing. The need was there and the location couldn’t be better, he said.

“I think a lot of people are going to be happy we’re creating jobs and fixing what was an eyesore on Pioneer,” Sizemore said.

To start, the new repair shop will hire four service technicians, all of whom are highly trained former dealership mechanics. One is Isaac Nickols, a lifelong Oak Harbor resident. Just shy of being a “master” mechanic, the guy is just about as qualified as they come.

But despite his skills, dealership closures have left him jobless twice over the past two years. In 2009, he lost his job at Frontier Chevrolet, then again at Whidbey Island Volkswagen/Mazda this past July. Having dedicated more than 12 years to his career only to continually lose his job was, to say the least, frustrating. Faced with working off island, Nickols was beginning to seriously consider a change in profession.

“I was really excited the day Joel called,” he said. “When he asked me if I was on board, I said, ‘Definitely.’”

Sizemore, who also owns a successful Anacortes-based contract carrier service, said he wasn’t content just to have some of the best technicians around. To be truly competitive, he also wanted a top-notch shop. Besides a makeover in the front lobby, he’s dumped more than $100,000 into the shop.

“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right,” he said.

According to Jill Johnson, executive director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Mami and Sizemore are off to a pretty good start. They are not only starting out with a highly qualified staff and top-of-the-line equipment, but perhaps most importantly, they have name recognition. People are finicky about their car service, she said, and many have come to know and respect Mami and mechanics like Nickols, which gives them a huge advantage over other new start ups.

“If they do a good job, they’ll be successful,” Johnson said.

They could very well end up being a significant source of competition for other service shops in town, such as Oak Harbor Motors. Although slumping car sales have forced owner Mike Horrobin to subsidize his business by investing in his own repair services, he said he isn’t that worried about his new neighbors. This past winter was the slowest his maintenance shop has been in 30 years. Mami and Sizemore have a challenge ahead, he said.

“I wish them the best of luck, but it’s tough,” Horrobin said.

No matter what their long-term success, Johnson said any new business in today’s economy is a welcome sight and should be encouraged. Forward-thinking “entrepreneurs” who jump on opportunity, like Mami and Sizemore, foster economic development and create jobs.

“This is the kind of thing that will rebuild the economy,” Johnston said.

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