GM leaves Oak Harbor; only GM outlet on Whidbey Island

Former car lot owners Rick Rennebohm, left, and Don Boyer meet in Gary Funk’s office Monday, to discuss their memories of the 75-year-old dealership.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Former car lot owners Rick Rennebohm, left, and Don Boyer meet in Gary Funk’s office Monday, to discuss their memories of the 75-year-old dealership.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

A 75-year car business will be closing its doors in Oak Harbor.

And it’s not by choice.

General Motors sent Frontier Chevrolet a notice to shut down as part of its effort to rebuild the company after emerging from bankruptcy. The franchise is one of 1,100 dealerships nation-wide that won’t be renewed by GM next year.

The news was unexpected, said Frontier Chevrolet owner Gary Funk on Monday. He plans to vacate the lot on Pioneer Way in early September. GM made Funk an offer to purchase the business.

“We had one of a couple options. One was to spend several million on a new facility or to take the monetary offer and move on with life,” Funk said.

The dealership is the only GM outlet on Whidbey Island and city officials worry its loss could leave economic scars. Before the closures were announced as part of GM’s bankruptcy process, Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik sent a letter to GM urging them to keep the lot open.

“When the Ford dealership left last year, we lost about 20 percent of that industry,” Slowik said, adding that it had a major impact on local sales tax revenues.

A couple of years ago, there were three new car dealers in downtown Oak Harbor. With the Ford and GM dealers gone, only Oak Harbor Motors, which sells Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep products and is owned by Mike and Cathy Horrobin, remains. They plan to stay, they said in a recent open letter to the community.

After his deal with GM, Funk purchased a new dealership at the existing Whidbey Island Volkswagen franchise just north of town. He plans to keep the GM service department open.

“There isn’t a GM dealer within a reasonable driving limit so we decided to keep all of our service tools,” Funk said. “Just because I’m not selling them doesn’t mean we can’t fix them.”

Some of his inventory will be moved to the new location, however, only 20 of his 37-member staff will keep their jobs.

“It’s the toughest decision I ever made in my life. I compare it to losing my father,” Funk said of the job cuts.

Funk purchased the Frontier Chevrolet franchise in 1996 with co-owner Rick Rennebohm, whose share of the company he bought out last year. It was formerly owned by 30-year dealer Don Boyer.

Boyer said he borrowed against everything he owned to purchase the dealership in what was once an under-developed part of town.

“I’ve cried almost as long as these guys did,” Boyer said of Funk and Rennebohm. “It was my whole life for 36 years.”

Mayor Slowik remembers Boyer Chevrolet as a very active and vibrant company; in many ways a city institution. He worked as general manager of the store in the 1980s.

“We had a brisk business back then. Don was a mentor to me and a great example of how to serve your community. He gave to the community and the community gave back to Don,” he said.

In 1982, Don Boyer Chevrolet/Pontiac was named Time Magazine Dealer of the Year by the Washington State Auto Dealers Association.

For years, Boyer Chevrolet was also the site of many key conversations during the town’s development. The Navy League and city hosted meetings in a second floor room. It was a 70s-styled room with orange carpeting, a built-in bar and a broad, round table.

“A lot of important decisions were made in that room,” Boyer said.

In the coming months, Funk said he plans to put an available sign on the downtown property.

He said the new dealership on the north end of town will look much like it does now but will specialize in Volkswagen, Mazda and GM service. Whether it could still do GM warranty service was unclear on Monday.

Slowik said the loss of Frontier Chevrolet is a sad time for the community and for the Funk family. He is sorry to see long-standing, small businesses crumbling, replaced by the mega-dealers in today’s market.

“I don’t know how much of his life is invested in that store but when you think of it as a family operation, it’s a huge letdown when General Motors decides to pull the plug,” Slowik said.

GM automobile owners can still bring their cars into Frontier Chevrolet for service until the company vacates in September, Funk said, but the sales department has already moved.

At 56-years of age, Funk said his life and opportunities will move on and he believes his customer base will follow. But it’s still not easy to leave.

“His dream was to have his son sit in his chair here,” Rennebohm said.

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