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Harley dealer's planned expansion will send him roaring past city limits


A boy and his motorcycle. Hard work and a dream. Jim Foster is an American success story.

Thirty-seven years ago, he was sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms and filling soda machines at the Harley-Davidson of Baltimore dealership on North Avenue. Today, at age 50, he owns the franchise, which has $4 million in annual sales.

And his career went into overdrive Thursday, when county officials approved his proposal for a 27,000-square-foot complex on Pulaski Highway near Golden Ring Mall.

"The new store will build on family relationships," said Mr. Foster, whose plans call for a working Harley jukebox, an antique popcorn popper, a kids' corral and picnic tables along with the requisite Bad Boy bikes.

Building on the growing interest in Harleys and related merchandise among men -- and women -- he already has put the concept in place at his smaller shop on Loch Raven Boulevard in the city. He greets customers by name, asks about their families and, of course, talks motorcycles.

"There's camaraderie here," said Roger Sherr, a genealogical search service publisher who dropped by this week. "They're really nice folks. They take care of their customers and you become part of the family."

Mr. Foster has plans to become involved in his new community, sprucing up the 2.8 acres he is buying -- now occupied by Al's Tavern -- working with students at Chesapeake High School and Eastern Technical High School in an entrepreneurship program and contributing to charitable events.

"I think Jim Foster will be a good asset to the community, as will his business," said Pat Winter, executive director of the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Harley shop has been at the Loch Raven Boulevard location for 32 years. Mr. Foster sought a county site to accommodate growth and to take advantage of Beltway customers.

He hopes to open the first phase of the four-building project by mid-1997. The initial 12,000-square-foot center will offer motorcycle sales and service, and Harley's expanding retail business.

"It's not a poor man's sport," said Mr. Sherr, who bought a Harley in 1992 and traded it in for another last year.

A new Harley can cost from just under $5,000 to $17,000, depending on the model and options. And demand is so great that it can take a year to get a new bike -- already this year, nearly 100,000 Harley motorcycles have been sold worldwide, up from 26,000 in 1984.

Mr. Foster attributes the growing interest to several factors, including an improved product and a new market: RUBs -- rich urban bikers. "People want a new passion," he said. "It's a three-letter word, T-O-Y."

He has lots of other "toys" at his current 7,900-square-foot store, from Harley pajamas and women's bikinis splashed with colorful motorcycle images to baby bibs with the company's Eagle emblem.

"We create an ambience," Mr. Foster said of his spanking-clean showroom and cleverly arranged inventory, including a 1932 Harley with sidecar.

The growing number of female customers also has boosted sales, Mr. Foster said.

Just ask his wife, Judy Foster, who after three years of marriage is learning to share her husband's interest -- in a big way.

Tomorrow, the Fosters will straddle a Harley and set out for California from their northwest Baltimore County home. They'll see the sights along the 4,000-plus-mile route, but their destination is San Diego, where the 1996 Harley models will be unveiled.

"It'll be an adventure," predicted Mrs. Foster, who smiles patiently as her husband talks about motorcycles and more motorcycles.

The lanky Mr. Foster, who wears shirts with the Harley logo inscribed on the pocket, said his interest started when he was 12. Captivated by a neighbor's motorcycle, he was soon part of the world of engines, leather and chrome.

By age 13, he had bought his own bike, started racing and found his way to the North Avenue store, which was founded in 1923. He finagled a handyman's job and took a long streetcar ride from his Woodmoor home near Liberty Road in Baltimore County to work there after school.

He stayed with Harley during junior high, through graduation from Milford Mill High School and for three more years while attending the University of Baltimore.

In 1966, Mr. Foster went to work for the Triumph Corp. in Timonium as a clerk and rose to assistant marketing director. In 1975, he returned to Harley as a sales manager, and in 1986 he bought the franchise.

"He's a working boss," said the Harley dealership's sales manager, Mike Nobile, who has worked there for 20 years. "His skills in management and people skills are way above a lot of others in business. He's always progressive in the things he wants to do."

And, he adds quite matter-of-factly, "in general, motorcycle people are the best people out there."

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