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The lack of prime commercial property in Provo could send the city's three major automobile dealers cruising off to another town.

With the auto industry steering its dealerships into auto malls, Provo officials are desperately searching for a good spot for local dealers. But they haven't been able to find enough suitable land.And unless some prime property becomes available soon, the Dodge, Ford and Chevrolet dealers might move their car lots to Orem where developable land is aplenty.

"If we lose those three dealers, for all intent and purposes we're out of the automobile business," said Steve Gleason, business development director of the Provo Office of Economic Development.

Christensen Chevrolet recently purchased the Dodge dealership on 300 South, and company officials want to relocate it next to their other dealership on University Parkway. The company would consider moving all of its dealerships to an auto mall to be shared with a Ford dealership. Provo/Orem Ford has less than two years remaining on its lease at 150 S. University Ave. Also, Ford Motor Co. wants the dealership to find a better location. But again, Provo officials haven't identified a site that's available.

"The Ford dealer wants to stay in Provo, but we've just shut down all the doors open to him," Mayor George Stewart said.

The three main dealers generate about one-fourth of Provo's sales tax revenue, about $500,000 annually. The amount increased about 18 percent in 1995. Christensen Cheverolet alone is the city's third top sales-tax contributor. Officials believe the three dealers would generate about $700,000 in annual sales tax if located in an auto mall.

"It's one of the few areas where we actually draw dollars from other cities," Gleason said.

The mayor last year proposed converting a redevelopment district at about 900 S. University Ave. into an auto mall. But the Provo City Council killed the proposal after businesses in the area adamantly protested.

The three dealerships recently expressed interest in 15 acres south of Christensen Chevrolet. The land, on the west side of University Parkway near the Provo River, is owned by Healthtrust Inc. and was once the proposed site of a hospital. The location would be ideal for all of Christensen's dealerships and would accommodate the Ford dealership as well.

"While there exists other property in Utah County for an auto plaza, we have yet been able to locate another workable site in Provo," Christensen officials said in a letter to the mayor.

The land has one major drawback. The development firm of Poag/McEwen has an option to purchase the property and plans to build a specialty shopping center there. The company asked the City Council last week for a zone change that would allow the shopping center.

The mayor urged council members to reject the zone change so the land could become available to the auto dealers. He said allowing the shopping center to be developed would likely be the move that sends the auto dealers packing.

"We have worked for a long time trying to identify that site," Stewart said.

Despite Stewart's pleas, the City Council voted 4-1 to rezone the land. Most council members said they didn't want to be a chess piece in a game between developers. They said it was only fair to deal with Poag/McEwen's request on its merits because it has the rights to the property. They said there is no guarantee the auto dealers would buy the land if it becomes available.

"We don't have a request for an auto mall yet," Council Chairwoman Jane Carlile said.

Dennis Poulsen sided with the mayor and cast the lone vote against the zone change.

"What we are doing here is inviting (the car dealers) to move," he said.

The land still might become available to the car dealers if Poag/McEwen's plan for a specialty shopping center falls through. The company is competing with Esnet Development to get the needed tenants for a specialty shopping center. Esnet wants to build a specialty shopping center in the Riverwoods Business Park. Whichever company lands the important tenants will likely build a shopping center, and the other likely will not.