Hard sell for used car operation CarMax wants to open branch at Freestate site


John F. Breitenberg is trying to peddle up to 1,000 used cars at once -- and Savage-North Laurel residents seem to be warming to his pitch.

For the past two months, the Clarksville attorney representing the CarMax used car company has been giving a hard sell to residents in hopes that they will support the Richmond-based company's plan to open its next branch at the Freestate Development off U.S. 1 near Savage.

Freestate is the company's first choice for a location in the area, although CarMax -- a subsidiary of Circuit City Stores Inc. -- has said it is also considering a site in Northern Virginia if Maryland lawmakers deny its request to allow Sunday car sales in Howard County.

Local legislators are weighing whether to introduce such a bill in this year's General Assembly. In the meantime, Mr. Breitenberg is visiting community groups to tout the benefits of the CarMax operation.

"It's a different kind of used car operation," Mr. Breitenberg assured the North Laurel Civic Association during a meeting this week, a prelude to a similar meeting with the Savage Community Association Tuesday.

No leaky cars staining the roadways around the car lot, he said. No roped-off areas with colored flags. No loudspeakers assaulting the neighborhood or hand-painted prices on car windows.

Instead, Mr. Breitenberg said, the huge CarMax operation would have 500 to 1,000 cars in a sleek, contemporary setting, low-key sales personnel and self-serve, computerized information centers.

And he told residents that CarMax would bring 250 to 500 jobs to the area while attracting other retailers, such as Safeway, Circuit City and Best Products.

"It's almost too good to be true," said Tom Flynn, vice president of the North Laurel Civic Association, at Tuesday's meeting with Mr. Breitenberg.

The sales pitch is even winning favor with those who had opposed the used car dealership in an area known for more traditional used car lots.

"My first opinion was we don't need another used car lot on Route 1," said Michael Thewes, one of a small group of residents who were given an all-expense paid tour of CarMax's Richmond store two weeks ago.

But the group's views changed after it got a look at the Richmond operation, he said. "It doesn't look like a used car lot. The landscaping was better. The lots were extremely clean," said Mr. Thewes. "I was very, very pleased with what it was. It was a class act."

Bill Waff, president of the Savage Community Association, also toured the Richmond site and endorsed the proposal in a community newsletter.

"I'm tending to be in favor of it," he said this week. Mr. Waff said a CarMax lot could serve as a long-awaited anchor for the stalled Freestate project. "It might be the thing to get the rest of the project going."

The CarMax lot would be the nation's sixth such operation. In addition to the one in Richmond, there are two in Georgia and two in North Carolina.

The North Laurel-Savage operation would occupy 45.9 acres at the Freestate site, where nearby residents have long sought a shopping center. The closest major shopping centers to the area are in Columbia and in the City of Laurel, across the Prince George's County line.

Developers of Freestate, a former harness race track that closed five years ago, say they have had trouble drawing major businesses that would serve as anchors. Mr. Breitenberg said 10 grocery chains rejected offers to open stores at the Freestate property.

"Without the anchors you're not going to be able to attract the other types of users you want at the site," he told the North Laurel group.

CarMax has the potential to attract customers from as far north as Delaware and as far south as Northern Virginia, he said. "The advertising puts the Freestate property on the map."

Local lawmakers have said that residents' support for the project is crucial to whether they will support a bill allowing Sunday car sales in Howard.

Only two counties in the state allow car dealerships to sell on Sundays -- Prince George's and Montgomery. The Howard County General Assembly delegation will review the CarMax proposal during a Nov. 29 public hearing on all county bills that are to be proposed during the next session.

At least one member of the delegation is leaning in favor of the Sunday sales proposal.

"I'm inclined to support what they're trying to do," said Del. John Morgan, a Republican who represents the North Laurel area and who attended Tuesday's meeting. "The major issue for me is the attitude of the community."

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