Harley Dealer Plans Skidding To Halt In EL?

East Lyme — The proposed Harley-Davidson dealership and tourist attraction that pitted townspeople against one another in a sometimes bitter debate last year may not be coming to town after all.

The dealership's owner, Mike Schwartz, has Zoning Commission approval to operate Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson at 15 Industrial Park Road, located next to the Super Stop & Shop off Interstate 95. But Schwartz, who originally said he hoped to open last fall, has not yet begun renovating an existing warehouse on the property.

The town's zoning officer, William Mulholland, told the Zoning Commission at its meeting last week that he doesn't expect Mike's Famous to open here.

“The rumor is that he is not coming,” Mulholland said while giving an update to the commission.

Mulholland told the commission that something else is coming that will soon appear on its agenda. Mulholland declined to elaborate, saying he did not want to discuss the specifics of a pending application before it is formally received by the commission.

Schwartz declined to comment by phone last Friday, saying only that “We're looking at our options as before.”

Schwartz declined to comment again on Wednesday, either to confirm his intentions or to comment on whether he has been negotiating with Bob Kaufman, company president of Bob's Discount Furniture.

Kaufman declined to confirm whether he is trying to acquire the East Lyme parcel.

“I can't comment,” he said by phone Wednesday afternoon, adding that “there's no signed lease.”

Mulholland added last Thursday that, apparently, the market for Harley-Davidsons had peaked and that Schwartz intends to “pull the plug, regroup, and consolidate.”

Schwartz last week refuted the notion that sales have flattened or declined.

“Sales have been extraordinary,” he said, adding that sales for this model year have increased more than 90 percent.

Mike's Famous is based in New Castle, Del., and Schwartz opened a second such dealership last year in Smyrna, Del. He bought Groton Cycles in February 2004.

Schwartz' plan for East Lyme was to put a dealership, repair station, restaurant and entertainment area into an existing 46,000-square-foot building. The dealership was to emulate the New Castle business, where Schwartz sold more Harleys than anyone else in the country in 2003.

Overall, Harley-Davidson Inc., which is traded publicly, announced record growth for 2005, its 20th straight year of record revenue. But a Jan. 19 Associated Press story reported that U.S. sales had fallen in the fourth quarter, and a Reuters story on Jan. 19 reported that international sales had far outpaced sales in the United States.

Also, an AP story reported that Harley shares fell 14 percent in 2005.

Meanwhile, Bob's Discount Furniture stores' expansion plans have exploded. Kaufman announced last September that he plans to become a national chain with a public stock offering within the next two to three years.

In February 2005, a private equity firm acquired a 70-percent majority share of Bob's, providing funding for Kaufman's plans to add new stores and expand his distribution system. Those plans include a $20 million warehouse expansion at the company's Taftville distribution complex.

Last year, Bob's moved from 34th to 32nd in the ranking of the nation's top furniture stores, with 25.9 percent growth over the previous year.

The Harley plans have been laced with controversy from the beginning. Public hearings on the application were contentious and lasted well into the night.

Shortly after the Zoning Commission's unanimous approval of the project in February, a group of four residents in the Chapman Woods development appealed the decision in New London Superior Court. Schwartz fired back with a $2 million countersuit against the residents.

The court dismissed both lawsuits. But while the lawsuit against him was pending, Schwartz considered going to New London, putting down a deposit on a building on Crystal Avenue before abandoning those plans in December.

And in the final meeting over which he presided, the town's then-first selectman, Wayne Fraser, suggested the town consider using the proposed Mike's site in East Lyme for a new public safety complex, igniting instant opposition to the idea.
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