The talk in the Lawrence auto industry is what’s on the rise these days.
Most dealerships in the city said vehicle sales fall into that category.
“Business is up over last year and the year before that,” said Bill Egan, general manager of Laird Noller Automotive, which operates Ford, Mazda, Hyundai and other dealerships in Lawrence. “It really is growing every month at this point.”
But everything from wind turbines to fresh Danish trays also are on the rise at Lawrence car dealerships.
The past several years have seen an explosion of dealerships either rebuilding or adding amenities. In recent years, Crown Toyota and Volkswagen, Dale Willey Chevrolet, Laird Noller Hyundai and Jack Ellena Honda have undertaken major construction projects to improve their showrooms or service areas.
This year, Briggs Auto is the largest player in that arena. Briggs already has unveiled a new building for its Subaru dealership. Work is now under way on its new Nissan showroom and service area — which will be in the location formerly occupied by Jim Clark Motors, just north of 31st and Iowa Street in the Lawrence Auto Plaza.
After that project is complete, work will begin on a new showroom for the Briggs Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler dealership, which will be located along the western edge of the Auto Plaza.
The two projects are expected to remake the Auto Plaza area. Scott Teenor, general manager of Briggs’ Lawrence operations, said the project will include converting the median of West 29th Terrace, which runs down the center of the Auto Plaza, so that the median can be used to display vehicles.
Teenor said a future phase of the development still includes plans for a wind turbine that will be used to power electric vehicle charging stations at the new Nissan dealership.
Previously, plans called for that wind tower to be 75 feet tall, creating a new South Lawrence landmark. Teenor said designers are still trying to determine whether the wind tower ultimately will be that tall.
Either way, he expects the new projects to create a buzz.
“We understand that you have to have new facilities where the customer can be in a modern, enjoyable atmosphere,” Teenor said.
The little things, he said, have become big things in the auto industry. That’s why some dealership showrooms now have fireplaces where customers can warm up while they wait for their vehicle to be serviced. And amenities such as gourmet coffee and Danish pastries are becoming more common too.
“Nobody likes to come and get their oil changed, but if you can make it more enjoyable, it makes a difference to people,” Teenor said.
During the construction project, Briggs’ Nissan dealership is in the former Sears building at 27th and Iowa streets. Teenor said once the Nissan dealership is complete, which could be in the next two months, the Dodge/Chrysler dealership may move into the Sears location to accommodate construction in the Auto Plaza.
Officials at Shawnee Mission Kia of Lawrence also have a major construction project under way. Work is progressing on an expansion of the showroom at 1225 E. 23rd St. Officials with the dealership previously said the expansion would add about 9,000 square feet to the dealership.
Amenities are slated to include a children’s area, Internet cafe for guests, a new service drive, additional office space and more display area for vehicles.
Local dealers are betting that the auto market is experiencing a prolonged recovery. Thus far, signs have been encouraging, several said.
“The average age of a car on the road today is 11 years old, and that is just too old,” John Ellena of Jack Ellena Honda said. “There is a lot of pent-up demand out there.”
Dale Willey of Dale Willey Automotive — the Chevrolet and GM dealership — said the industry is expecting about 1 million additional vehicles to be sold in 2013.
“That will get us up to about 15.5 million units nationwide, and some of that will trickle down to old Lawrence, Kansas,” Willey said.
Egan at Laird Noller said he's expecting 25 percent to 30 percent growth in his dealership’s business.
“The economy is improving,” Egan said. “We live in a pretty stable environment here in the Midwest, and that is resulting in a good car-buying market right now.”
But several dealers said they are still watching the economy closely. The two recent snowstorms dented business in February, and some dealers said the continued financial uncertainty in Washington, D.C., has given some buyers pause.
On the local level, dealers said an uptick in construction activity, especially new home construction, would provide a boost to the industry locally. The new homes not only bring new residents — or potential customers — to the area, but also have another benefit.
“We have a lot of trucks to sell,” Willey said, “and construction people buy a lot of trucks.”