There’s no Ford in our future

While the logistics of Whidbey Island Ford’s impending closure are still being batted around, the one certainty as of Wednesday was that the Oak Harbor staple will soon be gone.

Founded in the 1950s, or perhaps earlier, Whidbey Island Ford is currently operating with the understanding that it will close in the near future. The inventory of approximately 150 vehicles will relocate to Frontier Ford in Anacortes, also a familiar business in the area, having been around since 1965. Ron Rennebohm purchased the business in 2001.

“We are doing service work at that store on a wind-down basis and as of today (Thursday) we have sales staff onsite selling cars,” said David Sommerville, Frontier Ford vice president of operations, referring to the Oak Harbor location.

The closure will put 18 employees out of work. Frontier Ford will absorb at least an additional nine employees, some of whom have already started work in Anacortes.

Of salesperson Ted Lutz’s nearly nine years with the company, six-and-a-half were in Anacortes. He spent his final day Friday in the eerily empty Oak Harbor facility. Today he will return to Frontier and clock in as one the fortunate handful.

Sommerville said he hopes to cut into the 18 tentatively left jobless.

“That’s the relevant statistic as of today,” he said of the number of displaced employees. “We’re still working through this issue and intend to absorb as many more as possible.”

The decision to close the business did not come lightly. Sommerville was complimentary of Oak Harbor and called the situation “very sad.”

“This has nothing to do with Oak Harbor,” he said. “We’re very fond of the community. We did everything we could to sustain the business. This is about the

automotive business and the nature of distribution channels.”

Business results have reflected the sales performance and marketing of domestic car manufacturers, Sommerville said. Easy access to the mainland and a shift in buying practices on the island were contributors in the tough decision.

“We came to the conclusion . . . that the consumption patterns and habits of Island County have changed considerably since the day Whidbey Island Ford opened in the 1950s and substantially in the timeframe that we’ve operated,” he said.

Former owner and Oak Harbor resident Don Boyer could not remember who originally opened the business, but he said it came into existence before World War II.

Sommerville said the final status of Whidbey Island Ford, regarding future businesses that could rent or purchase the building and property from owner Dan Berg, remains unresolved.

“We’re looking at the option of selling the business and at all of the other options that might come up,” he said.

The business is closing but what will remain is a prime piece of property on a corner of Highway 20, said Jill Johnson, Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce executive director, choosing the “half-full” outlook.

“This is a very valuable piece of commercial property and we are hopeful that it will be redeveloped in a way that will attract new businesses into our community,” she said, adding that the situation presents an opportunity for growth.

Oak Harbor was abuzz with rumors Wednesday and Thursday as speculation about the business abounded as the gravity of the situation was not immediately discernible. Johnson seized the opportunity to underscore the importance of supporting the local economy.

“Although we’re very disappointed of the decision, this serves as a valuable reminder to us all of the importance of investing in our own community,” she said. “If we want these types of businesses and services available to us on the island, then it’s important that we make our purchases locally.”

Johnson said Whidbey Island Ford’s fate points to a larger problem.

“I know it sounds like chamber rhetoric, but it’s true,” she said. “Our local businesses can’t keep their doors open if we continually make choices to shop in other communities and every time a business leaves town, they take jobs with them.”

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