Friday, June 27, 2014

TOP STORY >> Gwatney recalls early years

Leader staff writer

Harold Gwatney, who moved to Jacksonville in 1958 to run the city’s first Chevrolet dealership, was recently recognized for allowing officials to place the welcome sign on his property near the freeway.

The sign was moved to accommodate the planned widening of Hwy. 67/167 — the freeway hadn’t been built yet when Gwatney first arrived in Jacksonville.

The Main Street and Redmond Road overpasses are also being replaced. The sign will be landscaped and is designed to attract visitors.

This isn’t the first and may not be the last time Gwatney plays a part in Jacksonville’s growth.

The Gwatney Chevrolet dealership moved to its second and current location on T.P. White Drive in the early 1970s, he said.

Before that, it was on Main Street across from the court building.

Gray Manor Apartments are next to the court building.

That one-story building was a school before the county district acquired North Pulaski High School on Harris Road.

Gwatney knew the ordinance plant was hiring and Jacksonville didn’t have anywhere for the employees to live.

The car dealer made an offer to buy the old schoolhouse from the school board. The board approved his offer, but Gwatney said he had to secure financing.

He approached realtor Bart Gray Sr. The two attended Jacksonville United Methodist Church.

They became partners in buying and renovating the schoolhouse into the then-HarBart apartments.

Gwatney said, “Some of us did the things we needed to do to grow.” They were mostly businessmen in their 20s and 30s who worked from the bottom up in different industries, he noted.

Part of the schoolhouse-turned-apartments purchase included the property that became the 14th Ramada Inn built in the chain’s history, Gwatney explained.

The car dealer and Gray didn’t agree on how to construct the motel, so Gwatney told the realtor he could have it.

Gwatney said Gray lost a lot of money on that venture because he thought the motel could be built cheaper than a $290,000 quote. He was wrong, and the contractor who was hired went broke on the project, Gwatney said.

Gray recovered with help from investors, he added.

Gwatney said he eventually sold the apartments and some apartments he built behind the library to Gray. The building on Main Street became Gray Manor Apartments.

The car dealer also founded the city’s second bank, First National Bank. Gwatney explained that Raymond Rebsamen, the Ford dealer and insurance executive, owned the first bank in Jacksonville.

When Gwatney’s customers went to that bank for a car loan, the staff would try to sell them a Ford car instead, he said.

Another project Gwatney was involved in was turning the bowling alley into a post office and leasing out the Kroger shopping center.

When the franchised dealership moved closer to the freeway, at the corporate office’s request, Gwatney bought the T.P. White Drive lot it is on and the shopping center.

He didn’t know that several of his friends were trying to acquire different portions of the center for their businesses.

After Gwatney closed the sale, they got together to discuss who wanted to do what. A partnership, of which the car dealer is the last surviving member, was formed.

Today, Gwatney does business with their families, he said.

And what does the car dealer think of Jacksonville now?

He said, “I’m not trying to say this to be derogatory…but I think we’ve lost our directional control.”

Gwatney continued, “Jacksonville hasn’t grown in the last year or two. I don’t see a lot of growth in it. If you look around, there’s not many new things happening. We have a lot of vacancies.”

He supports the city’s detachment from the Pulaski County Special School District to form its own independent Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district.

“The school situation has always been a problem,” Gwatney said. “We had good people on the school board, but, when it came time to do something, it seemed like that the majority of the people were on the south side of the river instead of on the north side and as a result…we didn’t get the first choice on things the Pulaski County school board had to offer.”

Gwatney, a former adjutant general, hopes a local district maintaining standards or increasing them will reverse the trend of people moving to Cabot.

The car dealer got his start in North Little Rock.

As a kid, he swept floors at an uncle’s garage for $4 a week.

Gwatney’s uncle was drafted in 1944 for World War II, but was granted an exemption because he was a widower with five children.

A requirement of the exemption was that the uncle work in a war-related industry. The garage was moved to Hazen as a result, the he said.

Gwatney explained that, by then, “Everybody knew me as the kid riding the bicycle, picking parts up for the garage.”

The Critz Chevrolet dealership in North Little Rock asked Gwatney to come work for them. John Russell bought out Critz later.

Gwatney eventually became a certified mechanic.

Some “farm” boys, the men who were exempted from the draft, worked there, too.

He explained that the most skilled workers went to war, and “I could do things the farm boys couldn’t.”

Gwatney went fulltime after he graduated from high school.

“I guess my boss liked me or something. He asked me one day, ‘How would you like to be a Chevrolet dealer in Jacksonville? I told him, ‘I’d like to do that, but I don’t have the money.’ He said, ‘Did I ask you about money?’”

The owners of Critz and the other area dealership, Bale Chevrolet, approved of Gwatney opening up a lot.

Gwatney said he deals in cars because “I don’t know anything else…and I like cars.

“It just comes naturally to do the things we do.”

While in high school, he bought cars, repaired and sold them.

About how the industry has changed, Gwatney said, “There’s not a lot of change in what we did then and what we do now. We’ve learned a lot more about taking care of the customer. Years ago, we didn’t think about owner loyalty.

“Owner loyalty makes the business grow,” he said.

Gwatney added that, in the early days of the dealership, he didn’t have to look for customers, as there were not many cars to be sold. There was a waiting list to buy them.

The business did grow by leaps and bounds a few years after World War II.

Gwatney moved to Memphis in 1989 to help his son open the family’s second Chevrolet dealership.

He purchased a third Chevrolet dealership while he was there and broke ground on a Saturn dealership, one of the nation’s first for that manufacturer.

Gwatney bought a Ford dealership in Millington, Tenn., in 1993, a second Saturn dealership in Germantown, Tenn., in 1994 and a third Saturn dealership in Jackson, Tenn., in 1998.