Ground broken on auto mall

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COLLEGE PLACE -- Construction of a state-of-the-art $4 million auto mall that's been eight years in the making is officially under way off State Route 125.

Walla Walla auto dealer Mark Gilbert is laying the groundwork for his new Gilbert Honda, as well as three other possible dealerships in the four-phase, 15-acre project.

The roadway is the busiest in Walla Walla County, Gilbert said this morning, just two hours before the scheduled groundbreaking of the first phase of his autoplex. With an estimated 18,000 vehicles passing by the site each day, the new location should provide traffic, access and visibility, as well as a location for new vehicle franchises and ultimately potential for more local sales tax revenue, he said.

Vancouver, Wash.,-based Team Construction is the contractor on the first phase, a 21,000-square-foot building on three of the property's 15 acres along the highway and Commercial Drive. The project is expected to last seven months with the anticipated opening of Walla Walla's new Honda dealership next March.

Gilbert, whose 8-year-old Gilbert Auto Group has grown to include four dealerships and a body shop, doesn't have a set timeline for the remaining three phases of the project.

But he said he's confident the second phase will start in 2011, and that he will have no problem filling the remaining portions of the property.

"We know we have more interest than we have room at the autoplex," he said.

Today's 11 a.m. groundbreaking ceremony sets the stage for his sixth location in the Walla Walla and Pendleton areas. But it hasn't come without some hiccups.

The original plan, Gilbert said, was to open a Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge dealership in that location. Preparation for the mega-construction project also included the development of Commercial Drive and placement of a new street light, which included multi-jurisdictional cooperation between Walla Walla and College Place.

Most recently the project appeared that it could be stalled by foreclosure. According to a recent legal advertisement, lender Community Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings based on a $100 late fee. Gilbert said this morning the project is moving forward.

"I'm not going to cast stones on that topic," he said. "I know the banking industry has been very difficult. I wish everyone well and hope that as the economy improves there's opportunity for growth."

He said the mall is long-awaited but well worth it for a new franchise and a location with six times the visibility of the Isaacs Avenue location.

In addition to the new Gilbert Honda, Gilbert Auto Group includes Gilbert Chrysler Jeep Dodge & Ram Superstore on Isaacs; Gilbert Chevrolet Buick of Pendleton; Gilbert Suzuki Powersports; Gilbert Chrysler Jeep Dodge & Ram of Pendleton; and Northwest Collision.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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