MT. ORAB — The first mounds of dirt were moved on Thursday, August 27 as Brown County officials as well as Mark Williams and his family held a ceremonial groundbreaking on the site of a future automall.
More than 100 people were in attendance at the ceremony, including employees of Mt. Orab Ford and Beechmont Ford, the Brown County Commissioners, State Senator Joe Uecker, State Representative Doug Green, U.S. Representative Brad Wenstrup, and Mt. Orab’s mayor Bruce Lunsford and members of the village council.
“We’re very excited,” Williams said following the ceremony. “We worked on this for two years. To bring two franchises, two really strong franchises with trucks on one piece of property is really exciting.”
Williams and the village of Mt. Orab’s plan is to build an automall that would be, in their words, an anchor of economic development. The automall will be located on a nearly 30-acre tract of land behind the Kroger in Mt. Orab, partially adjacent to State Route 32.
According to details from a report in the Cincinnati Business Courier, the first phase of the automall project involves two 18,000 square foot buildings to house a pair of Williams’ dealerships, Mt. Orab Ford and Peebles Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram.
Williams confirmed that there are plans to build a restaurant and a hotel on the complex, though they won’t be built for the foreseeable future. Cincinnati United Contractors has signed on to do the construction, and President and CEO Charles Kubici confirmed that equipment would arrive on the site
Union Township’s Ken Geis served as the master of ceremonies, and before shoveling away dirt, Williams, Wenstrup, and Lunsford all gave speeches to the audience about how what was once just an idea became a possibility.
A seemingly innocuous drive back from Mt. Orab to his home in Cincinnati sold Williams on the idea of building an automall in Mt. Orab
“I leave and pull out of here at around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night,” Williams said. “From here to Eastgate (on S.R. 32) it was headlight after headlight, after headlight. I thought, ‘man, we can make this happen’.”
During his speech, Lunsford explained how the automall idea almost never came to fruition.
In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, car companies were closing down dealerships, and according to Lunsford, Gerald Gabbard, the former owner of Mt. Orab Ford who was in attendance at the groundbreaking, was offered a buy-out himself.
“It would have been easy for Gerald to just take a check and get a rocking chair but he didn’t do that,” Lunsford said. “He didn’t want to let the business that his mother and father and he had worked so hard to get it at.
“Later, when he decided that he wanted to sell and slow down, he had people approach him about buying the dealership, but they all wanted to move it some place else. He wanted it to stay here and be part of the legacy of his family. He went out looking for someone that would take it and build it. He told me he was looking for someone with good business sense, someone with integrity and ethics, and someone with the drive to make it go.
“I’m very happy to say that Mark Williams is that person and I think Mark is all the things Gerald is looking for.”
Williams praised Lunsford, the Mt. Orab Port Authority, and the Brown County Commissioners for their support in overcoming the numerous obstacles and red tape that the project faced.
“We’ve worked with a lot of municipalities and local government agencies,” Williams said. “Bruce, there’s no one that we worked with that was more pro-business than you, and I sincerely thank you.”
Williams also explained how Gabbard had told him about the piece of land where the automall will be, and how Gabbard helped facilitate the process that took all the parties to Thursday’s groundbreaking. In honor of Gabbard and his family, Williams said the road leading into the automall would be named “Gabbard Way.”
Williams said that he plans on drawing customers from a 100-mile radius around Mt. Orab, bringing in visitors from Kentucky, central, western, and southern Ohio, and even as far as Indiana and West Virginia.
“I think it means a lot to Brown County,” Commissioner Tony Applegate said. “This is a great day. We’ve got a development here that Mark Williams is committed to that’s just going to grow and grow and create a lot of jobs and increase the tax base for the county. This is an anchor development that helps others see the development of the market so I think others will follow after this.”