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A vacant Chattanooga auto dealership site on Chapman Road is set to roar back to life in January, new owners say, after the property was purchased out of former owner Joe Prebul's bankruptcy in 2009.

Crown Automotive Group, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based string of 25 franchises, said it will invest nearly $11 million in renovation and refurbishment of the 11.5-acre property, which has sat unused for nearly two years.

Crown will hire 45 people, including eight service technicians, and eventually will ramp up to 100 workers, according to Dwayne Hawkins, founder and president of Crown Automotive Group.

"We'll start off with probably about 300 cars," Hawkins said. "We're going to renovate the whole interior, rearrange the showroom and make that really neat, really up to date -- and the same thing will happen outside."

Hawkins founded Crown in 1969 as a Pontiac dealership and has expanded his automotive empire to 14 stores with 800 employees, he said.

The key ingredient has been customer and employee satisfaction, Hawkins said. "We dwell on that a lot. If you don't, you'll find out you're not successful."

Chattanooga void

Chattanooga has been one of the biggest cities in the country without a Chrysler dealership since the last one disappeared amid a flurry of lawsuits and federal charges, according to a Chrysler spokesman.

The Prebul Auto Group de-clared bankruptcy in February 2009 in the midst of wire fraud allegations against former owner Joe Prebul. Then Chrysler revoked the dealership's sales and service agreement and began looking for a new Chattanooga partner, Chrysler spokesman Ralph Kisiel said.

"We have a whole department that looks for qualified dealers who would be interested in entering a market, and we looked at the Crown Automotive Group," he said. "We're really pleased that we're going to get representation back there, especially with a full-line dealership."

The full-line or "Genesis" dealership will include Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler and Ram Trucks, Kisiel said, with 16 new or significantly refreshed vehicle models available for 2011.

"It will be considered one of [Chrysler's] larger dealerships," he said.

Carmaker streamlining

Chrysler has recently consolidated many of its smaller dealerships into larger, full-line dealerships in an attempt to save money through economies of scale, and by keeping individual dealers from competing against each other, he added.

Jim Meyers, vice president and chief operating officer at Crown, said there's still a lot to do before the store opens its doors in mid-January, including the recruiting of local talent to operate the dealership.

"We've been working on this for quite some time, but we're anxious to get going," he said. "We're going to put in all new flooring and paint, we're bringing in all the Chrysler [signs] so we can have identification for each line, we're putting all new furniture and computers in, and on the exterior we're doing repaving, adding new lighting and new landscaping," Meyers said.

VW's homefield

The new owners are aware of Chattanooga's growing reputation as a Volkswagen hub, but they aren't worried about the German automaker's homefield advantage, they say.

In fact, Crown sells Volks-wagen, Porsche and Audi vehicles at other locations and based its decision to come here in part on the advice of VW colleagues.

"Volkswagen said they picked out this area because they could see that the county and city of Chattanooga was coming up and going the right way," Hawkins said. "A lot of cities have been going the wrong way, but I think Chattanooga said, 'We've been there and done that and we want to go the other way.'"

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