Whitehall News

Infiniti switcheroo

City leaders: Used-car dealership isn't first choice, but better than nothing at all

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Some Whitehall officials say they are not pleased but are required to accept that National Road Automotive, 5250 E. Main St., lacks an inventory of new cars.

City officials expressed disappointment in October upon learning that Infiniti of Columbus would not sell new vehicles, but some also questioned the manner in which the case was handled.

Infiniti of Columbus applied to the Whitehall Planning Commission on Aug. 2, and City Council acted upon its positive recommendation Aug. 7 to issue a special permit for the sale of new and used cars. Two months later, the applicant told officials only used cars would be sold at the site.

National Road Automotive, a subsidiary of Infiniti of Columbus, opened for business Dec. 21 at the site of a former Shell gas station that had been abandoned for about the past two years. National Road Automotive sells only used cars, from a variety of manufacturers, drawing from an inventory of 60-65 trade-ins, off-lease vehicles and those purchased at auctions.

Although Whitehall city officials voiced disappointment, they also agreed that the current tenant is better than none at all.

Still, the experience has prompted officials to consider measures to prevent another misunderstanding. Measures could include administering an oath to applicants who provide testimony or present cases before the Planning Commission and Whitehall City Council.

"It could give us more weight" to question what is presented, city attorney Mike Shannon said.

Some cities such as Hilliard administer an oath but not for the purpose of pursing criminal charges of perjury, Hilliard assistant law director Tracy Bradford said. If false information is provided, the oath provides the city with means to revoke a special permit or variance if it is proven to have been obtained using knowingly false information, Bradford said.

"I don't think it was intentionally done, but maybe some facts were misrepresented," City Council President Jim Graham said of Infiniti's used-car dealership.

Shannon said although it is not possible to know whether city leaders were deceived, those representing Infiniti of Columbus stressed the sale of new cars at the site. Representatives included Dan Schmidt, owner of National Road Automotive, and Ryan Hanigan, of Architecture Ohio.

According to minutes of the Aug. 2 Planning Commission meeting, Hanigan told commission members Dan Schmidt had approached him about designing a new Infiniti dealership in Whitehall.

Hanigan told commission members "it was his understanding that no cars other than a (new or used) Infiniti" would be sold at the site, according to minutes.

During the Aug. 7 council meeting, when the special permit was approved, Hanigan said, "We're excited to bring this $100,000 facility to the city of Whitehall."

Whitehall development director Zach Woodruff told council on Oct. 23 that Infiniti had opted to open a dealership at Easton instead.

Schmidt told council members the decision to relocate had been made at the corporate level.

"It's a shocker. Everyone here was told Infiniti of Columbus was opening in Whitehall," Kantor said then.

Woodruff said he realized a change in plans was afoot when sign renderings submitted for approval did not make any reference to new Infiniti vehicles.

Officials were told, Woodruff said, that Infiniti had opted to open a new dealership at Easton.

Council members questioned whether National Road Automotive should be required to apply for its own special permit, but Woodruff said the permit had been issued for new and used cars and that used cars were being sold at the site.

Dan Schmidt said Jan. 19 that new cars are not being sold at the site because Infiniti of Columbus had opted not to do so. It also was determined that the site was too close to an existing franchise in Dublin for a new Infiniti franchise to open in Whitehall, he said. In addition, construction had begun for an Infiniti dealership at Easton. Ohio Revised Code limits franchises for sale of the same manufacturer's new vehicles to a 10-mile radius.

"So I was stuck with a site (and) chose to develop it (as National Road Automotive) rather than abandon the project," he said.

Shannon said city officials determined that they had nothing more to pursue.

"They are selling used cars, and a permit was for used cars," Maggard said, adding that the existing use is better than none at all.

Teresa Netotian, secretary of the Whitehall Planning Commission, said the commission had not rejected any applications for special permits for used card dating back to 2007. Only one permit was issued in 2012 -- to Infiniti if Columbus. Three permits were issued in 2011.

Despite the change in plans, officials remain pleased the site is no longer vacant.

"Sure, we wanted new cars, but it's still an upscale project," Woodruff said. "There is a remodeled building there instead of a blighted site. ... It's better to have something open there than a shuttered place."

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