Bell Motor Co. Closing After 85 Years In Business

By Guy Leonard, County Times

Gary Bell, of Bell Motor Co., says that tough economic times, caused in part by high energy prices, meant that making a profit on selling cars has become increasingly difficult. (Photo: Guy Leonard)
Gary Bell, of Bell Motor Co., says that tough economic times, caused in part by high energy prices, meant that making a profit on selling cars has become increasingly difficult. (Photo: Guy Leonard)

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (Sept. 25, 2008) -- Bell Motor Co. has the weathered ups and downs in the economy, good times and bad times in Leonardtown, and even the Great Depression that occurred six years after the dealership opened in 1923. Now, after almost nine decades in business, the GM dealer is closing its doors forever due to economic reasons.

Bell Motor Co. has been a near permanent fixture in Leonardtown since its opening Jan. 17 85 years ago, employing not only four generations of the Bell family, but many in the local community.

“We’re going to end the business either this month or next month,” said Gary Bell, one of the brothers who runs the shop on Washington Street. “We’re still doing parts and service right now, but we’re not ordering any new cars.”

Once the family has liquidated its current inventory, Bell told the County Times, the business venture that has held the title of second oldest, continuously-running Chevrolet dealership in the nation will cease.

The family will still own the building they’ve occupied in Leonardtown and will likely lease it, but those negotiations are still ongoing, Bell said.

The Bells also lease out portion of their space on Washington Street to the county as storage for their emergency preparedness vehicles; that lease will also continue, he said.

Bell said that his family’s business has fallen victim to the sharp economic downturn that has hit the country.

With bad mortgages crippling the system, the U.S. Government and The Federal Reserve scrambling to bailout huge investment banks and the high costs of energy that drive up the price of everything else, turning a profit selling automobiles was simply too difficult, he said.

“We can compare the sales of this year to years past and there is no comparison,” Bell said. “There’s little to no profit in a new car now, it’s been cut to the bone.”

Frank Bell, uncle to the Bell brothers, said that the decision to close down the family business was an emotional one.

“Everyday of my life and Gary’s lifetime we’ve been here working six days a week, sometimes seven,” Frank Bell said. “Sometimes it’s like taking your heart out.”

But the decision to close the family business has not been a sudden one, Gary Bell said.

Over the past several years they’ve been waiting for the economy to turn around, he said, but things just kept getting worse.

“It’s been building for the last couple of years,” he said. “You have to know when to cut your losses.”

Frank Bell said the business just could no longer sustain itself.

“In the 50 plus years I’ve been here this is the worst it’s ever been,” Frank Bell said. “Bar any.”

Bob Schaller, director of the county’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said the loss of Bell Motor Co. meant the loss of a local icon.

“It’s definitely serious,” Schaller said. “It’s a huge loss.”

As the only General Motors dealer in the county, anyone seeking to get such an automobile or service would soon have to drive all the way to Prince Frederick in Calvert County, Schaller said.

“It seems every [local] family has bought a car from Bell, we’ve purchased two from them,” Schaller said of his own family. “It’s just not going to be the same.”

If a local business icon like this can go down, Schaller said, it was warning as to just how serious the economic situation had become.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Schaller said. “It makes us all more aware of how soft the economy is in some sectors.”

Gary Bell said that after the doors close to the family business, they’ll have to seek their own opportunities elsewhere.

“We’ll be looking for jobs like everybody else,” he said.

County Commissioner Larry Jarboe said another sign of the times was that businesses would have to seek other ways of operating in the market or face failure; but he also said that government had a role, particularly in keeping taxes low.

He said that this year’s 4-to-1 vote of the board to not hold down property taxes hurt local businesses in the economic downturn.

“I saw this coming,” Jarboe said.

Jarboe voted to institute a constant yield rate, which lowered the tax rate on property to compensate for the sharp rise in assessment values. Other commissioners said the constant yield could have cost the county $7 million in revenue.

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