Crown Automotive Group, the company that will reopen the shuttered former location of Prebul Chrysler Jeep Dodge on Chapman Road, is accelerating preparations to finish refurbishing what will be the biggest Chrysler dealership in Tennessee by the end of January, according to new general manager Tim Roussell.
Only a few faded signs remind visitors that this 11.5-acre location once was the largest of Joe Prebul's chain of dealerships, before authorities seized his assets and charged him with 11 counts of wire fraud in 2009.
Prebul later pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor larceny, agreeing to serve a year in prison. He still is serving his sentence and is scheduled to get out May 12, according to his recent employer Bob McKamey.
In an outbuilding originally built to handle fleet sales for Prebul's dealership, Roussell now works to firm up supplier contracts, schedule contractors and file the paperwork necessary to get the facility up and running.
It's a casual atmosphere, and visitors are greeted by a parrot in a cage that knows how to say 'hello' and a number of other words.
When completed, the lobby will be a shining palace of marble and glass, filled with 14 gleaming 2011 model year Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles, Roussell said.
Hundreds more will fill the giant parking lot outside.
"Construction is at about 85 percent, but completion of the total project is more like 70 percent," he said. "We're really in the final phase, and from a standpoint of opening up; we just need furniture and computers."
Initially he will use only a third of the giant body shop, which is physically separate from the main dealership.
Other preparations revolve around hiring employees, many of whom will be former Prebul workers, he said.
Willie Beard, for instance, has been in customer service for 35 years and was one of the more popular service personnel at the former Prebul location, associates say.
Beard was the first in, and the last out, often staying late to allow customers to drop cars off after work, he said.
He was also one of the last employees to work at the dealership during the bankruptcy, he said.
"I'm glad to go back into customer service, as a matter of fact," Beard said.
Another former employee, Evie Varnell, worked at the Prebul dealership for eight years and also will join the new team.
"I think we definitely need a Chrysler Dodge dealership here," she said. "The next closest one is in Ringgold [Ga.], and we need a dealership of our own."
• Name: Crown Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram
• Location: 2120 Chapman Road
• Employees: About 45 initially
• Opening: Soft opening Jan. 31, grand opening TBA
• Number of cars: A minimum of 100 new and 100 used
Source: Crown Automotive Group
Though the dealership technically will be open at the end of January, the grand opening will be closer to March, said Amanda Tossberg, spokeswoman for the Crown Automotive Group.
Even without a dealership in Chattanooga, Chrysler still has registered 39 new vehicles in December that Chattanoogans bought from other dealerships, and Roussell expects to sell many more than that when he's finished laying the groundwork.
"This is not the first dealership I've built from the ground up," he said. "We expect to get some conquest buyers."
Ron Sharp, general manager at the nearby Kelly Cars location on Chapman Road, said he was glad to have his neighbor back again.
"It's going to be great for Chattanooga to have these guys coming in," he said. "It will bring more customers to the area, and they've got to drive past us both ways."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.