The concept of an "auto park" rather than an "auto mall" dawned on Joel Towbin during his negotiations with Glenwood Springs.
"I didn't argue with the town when they said they wanted to it beautiful," Towbin said from his office at the new Elk Mountain Motors Auto Park in West Glenwood Springs. "We have a lot of green space and trees ... We're on the Colorado River ... It seems like a park atmosphere, so we're calling our dealership an auto park."
Elk Mountain Motors Auto Park opened Aug. 1. The park includes 600 feet of Colorado River frontage with a new bike trail alongside, complete with benches, picnic tables, plenty of shade, grass, newly planted spruce trees, shrubs and grass.
"I've never heard of this being done in the U.S.," said Towbin, who bought Elk Mountain Motors Volkswagen/Audi in 1999.
The Colorado River notwithstanding, Elk Mountain Motors' centerpiece is a sparkling new, 21,500-square-foot sales and service facility, with separate showrooms for Volkswagens and Audi, and two covered service areas.
"Our old place was about half that size," Towbin said.
The new Elk Mountain Motors dealership covers three acres on Interstate 70, compared to the cramped one acre the old one occupied across the street from the 110-year-old Hotel Colorado. Towbin predicted the extra room, better visibility, inviting showrooms and improved service facilities will translate into a 30 percent increase in sales in the next year.
"That's huge," Towbin said.
Towbin, an Aspen resident whose family started in the automobile dealership business in New Jersey in 1948, first found Elk Mountain Motors when he bought an Audi A8 there in 1998.
"I felt it was a sleepy kind of dealership, and the service wasn't up to par with the kind of car they were selling," Towbin said.
Towbin owned a Volkswagen dealership in the 1970s, then later sold Chevrolets. He was a vice president in a California company with 17 dealerships, and opened two dealerships with his brother in Las Vegas in the late 1980s.
In 1998, Towbin was coming off a two-year internship as a counselor at Colorado West Mental Health, and wanted to get back into the car business. "So in 1999 I bought Elk Mountain Motors and kept the name, but had a plan to expand. This is where we ended up," he said, leaning back in his desk chair, from which he can look down on the Audi showroom.
The old building and parking lot across the street from the Hotel Colorado have been converted into the Elk Mountain Motors Preowned Center. "So many people are familiar with the location, we kept it because of its high visibility," Towbin said.
The old Elk Mountain Motors was located at the north end of the Grand Avenue bridge, one of Glenwood's busiest intersections. The dealership took up two city blocks. It was bordered by Sixth Street, which is clogged during morning and afternoon rush hours, three residential streets to the east and west, and houses that crowded in from the north. Customer parking was a major problem.
"We've probably expanded our parking ten-fold," Towbin said. "We're going to make it real easy for people to park, because that was the number one pet peeve we had from our customers, and from us."
The new Elk Mountain Motors service area has been expanded by 40 percent, and is now located under one roof. With a computerized parts system, plenty of parking for cars waiting for service, and other improvements, Towbin hopes to reduce the wait for a service appointment to three days. "We've already cut it from three weeks, to 10 days," he said.
Then there are the cars themselves. On Wednesday, there were 200 new Volkswagens and Audis on the lot, just waiting for potential buyers to give them a look. Cars in the circular showrooms are illuminated by track lighting, which hangs from 25-foot ceilings.
Towbin said he has already increased his staff by 20 percent to handle new business and improve service, and now has 40 employees.
Elk Mountain Motors is the only Volkswagen/Audi dealership between Denver and Provo, Utah, Towbin said, and the dealership's market is the entire Western Slope. "We're almost like a destination point," he said.
To accommodate customers from outside the immediate area, Elk Mountain Motors offers discounts on rafting and other attractions. The discounts are another innovation. "We're not sure how big this can get, but we think it will increase our activity, and it could help the community," he said.
Towbin, 54, said he loves the Roaring Fork Valley, and owning a business in Glenwood Springs is "a dream come true." He also looks forward to his family flying out to see the new Elk Mountain Motors Auto Park.
"I'm really excited about having them here," he said.
Contact Lynn Burton: 945-8515, ext. 534