Muskego — Colorful balloons bounced in the breeze above the cars on sale at Salentine Buick.
They reflected the festive atmosphere inside the 87-year-old dealership Monday, employees' first day at work after the dealership announced that it again will start selling new cars.
General Motors had closed down the dealership's new car franchise just more than a year ago. Salentine, W14444 Janesville Road, was one of more than 1,000 dealerships that General Motors eliminated as it entered bankruptcy.
Last month, GM reinstated about 600 dealerships, including Salentine. But the folks at Salentine did not know everything was finally nailed down until just last week, when an order for 10 2011 Buicks sailed through without a hitch.
"It all worked," said a relieved Sue Sorensen, general manager and co-owner. "We're ecstatic."
How thrilled is the family and its employees about the news?
On a scale of 1 to 10, Scott Salentine, also one of the owners, joked: "We're a 20."
Cars should arrive by fall
That first batch of new cars should be on the lot at in September, said Sorenson, who owns the three-generation dealership with two sisters and a brother.
But it could take up to a year to get the stock of new cars up to where it should be, said Louis Roso, sales manager. The dealership could start hiring in about six months, he added.
Over the past year, the dealership had survived by selling used cars, as well as auto parts, and by doing service work and auto body repair. Thankfully, all those areas of the business have been busy, Sorensen said.
Key part of community
Friday's news quickly spread throughout the city and among those who breathed a sigh of relief was Mayor John Johnson.
"It's great news," he said. "We were a little worried about them for a while."
Salentine has been a rock for the entire community, he said. For example he said, the dealership stepped forward a couple of years ago when the Muskego food pantry was looking for a location. The dealership has given up space and chipped in toward the cost of utilities for the pantry, he said.
Salentine also supports the local baseball teams as well as events to raise money for people who suddenly find themselves in need, Johnson said.
"They go to bat for those people," he said. The people at the dealership organized fundraisers and otherwise helped them.
The family has done that for many years, Johnson said.
Customers remain loyal
And while the family has been faithful to the community, customers have been faithful to the dealership.
"Our faithful customers, that's what's been keeping us going," said Darlene Bitter, receptionist/cashier.
An employee for nearly 15 years, Bitter has been hanging on to the hope that the new car franchise would be restored.
"I thought, 'We'll get it back. Something will happen,' " she said.
Over in the service department, Keith Szemborski, service adviser, added: "They never should have taken it away in the first place."
He said many customers shared that view. "Our customers were constantly asking, 'Have you gotten it back?' he said.
It's all about trust
One of those concerned customers is Ron Wells, who has been buying cars from Salentine since 1998.
"I hope to buy a new car here," he said. Wells is driving a car he purchased at Salentine in 2001 and wants to refresh his wheels with a 2012 model.
While enjoying the car-buying experience, Wells said he really likes the service department.
"I can trust them," he said. "They don't sell me what I don't need."
Outpouring of support
The owners say they don't know why Salentine was dropped by GM - or what the their dealership was reinstated.
But many people have stood behind the dealership in its hour of need, Sorensen said.
"If it wasn't for our customers, the community, employees, Harris Bank and Father Norm Oswald," things would have been different, Sorensen said.
Oswald led a letter-writing campaign for the dealership, continually was on the phone with GM executives and bolstered the Salentine family hopes, Sorensen said (See related story on Page 8).
"He gave us a never-give-up attitude," she said.
Harris Bank "stood behind us in a tough economic situation," she added.
Salentine will hold an event in September to show its appreciation to the community, Sorensen said.
"I think if it weren't for the customers, GM would never even know we existed," Bitter said.
→ Prayers answered: Pastor who lobbied GM already orders new car. Page 8
A LITTLE HISTORY
Since it opened in 1923, the dealership and the family that has owned it have been woven into the fabric of the community.
• Founder S.J. Salentine was the first fire chief of Tess Corners, as was his son, E.J. Salentine. Scott Salentine is currently a member of the department.
• S.J. Salentine donated a Buick chassis that the Fire Department turned into a fire truck.
• The original dealership was across Tess Corners Drive from the current location. The first year it opened, customers bought shiny new Buicks that had spoke wheels, running boards and a spare tire clinging to the trunk.
• The family opened its current location in the 1970s. A $4 million renovation took place in 2000.
• The business has 48 employees, who average 17 years with the dealership. Two have been with the dealership for 40 years.
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