Okay, How About a Sunroof, Power Windows, and We'll Paint Your House?

Spend enough sleepless nights watching wee-hours infomercials and you're bound to surf across Miami Tonight, a slickly produced 30-minute advertisement for Kendall Toyota that appears in the guise of a talk show. The host -- and the car lot's general manager -- is Mark Jacobson, a friendly sort with a neatly trimmed silver beard and self-effacing manner that makes him a tad more endearing than your typically hyperactive huckster host, though you never lose sight of the fact that he's still hawking autos.

Every few weeks a new episode is aired, and repeated often -- Jacobson sitting Johnny Carson-like behind a desk interviewing celebrity guests (among them Bo Derek, Daisy Fuentes, Phil Rizzuto, and Neil Rogers), chitchatting with his band, and pausing every few minutes to put in a word about the latest deal from the good folks at Kendall Toyota. In Jacobson's Miami Tonight world, South Florida is a bright, bustling place, filled with exciting, happy people.

It's a safe bet you'll never see Kris Ziegler on Miami Tonight. "I hate that show," he says. The same goes for Hoke Jenkins, Igor Renko, and Scott Masington. Each of the men owns a home directly south of the mammoth South Dixie Highway dealership and has groused for years that they have a disrespectful and annoying neighbor.

They've complained about the incessant sound of car alarms that go off at all hours. About the radios that workers blare in the evenings as they go about their washing and detailing chores. About the public address system that reverberates through the neighborhood whenever an employee is paged on the ten-acre lot. They've complained about the banks of high intensity floodlights that make it seem as if they live next door to a supernova, about employees who park in their yards, about semitrailers that block the streets. They've complained about the way salesmen use their peaceful streets as a test course for prospective buyers, and about the odor of paint that drifts from the lot's body shop and hangs over their homes.

Kendall Toyota has tried to fix some of the problems, forbidding workers to park in the neighborhood and limiting the hours when the PA system can be used. "But before we could get any action, there had to be a continuous bombardment by the neighborhood against them," says Jenkins, who has lived in the neighborhood for ten years.

He says he has lodged so many complaints with the dealership that many staffers there know who he is and consider him a troublemaker. After one recent visit to the dealership, he recounts, he was jogging past and a group of employees began shouting at him. "They were yelling and screaming and jeering at me in Spanish," he recalls. "I don't know what it was they were saying, but I don't think it was, 'Hey, have a good run.'"

And many of the annoyances, he contends, persist. "They still race those cars through here every day," Jenkins says. And semis still dot the area.

So Jenkins and his neighbors were by no means overjoyed when the dealership recently announced plans to expand to a two-acre lot just to the north, the site of a former Red Lobster restaurant. Even before the purchase, Kendall Toyota was the most prodigious Toyota dealership in the U.S.; last year it sold more than 15,000 new cars, plus about 7500 used vehicles. But before it can go ahead with its plans to build a new four-story showroom/parking garage, the dealership must secure a zoning change. Anticipating a hearing before the county commission later this year, a group of neighbors have vowed to fight the expansion.

"We know we are going to get complaints from neighbors," says Robert Harter, the dealership's chief financial officer. "People in general don't like car dealers. They don't think they can trust them. But we've gone to the max to try to meet the neighbors' concerns. We want to be part of the community. We want the neighbors to like us."

Harter says one of the biggest nuisances will be solved by the beginning of next year, when Kendall Toyota moves its body shop to a new facility now under construction in a commercial park near Florida's Turnpike. "The body shop accounts for a lot of the noise," the executive asserts. "Sheet-metal work is one of the noisiest things we do." The relocation would also eliminate the smell of paint. The dealership is doing what it can to limit problems with car alarms, and employees are now forbidden to play radios at night or to use SW 110th Street for test drives.

But mistakes sometimes do happen, Harter concedes.
"We've had severe growing pains," echoes Virgil Adkins, the auto dealer's director of fixed operations. "We do our best. But it is hard to keep 500 employees in line." After a few recent complaints about the PA system, Adkins says, he personally took a pair of wire clippers and cut the lines to several speakers he knew were particularly galling to residents.

"Can we satisfy all of these people?" Harter asks. "No, I don't think we can." But as he will tell you, you don't get to be the number-one dealership in the nation by taking no for an answer. Late last month, officials from Kendall Toyota invited Scott Masington and Kris Ziegler over for a little chat. "It was a fact-finding mission for them," says Masington. "They wanted to see how strongly we were going to oppose their plans."

At one point the Kendall Toyota execs asked the men what steps the company ought to take to alleviate friction with the neighbors. Both Ziegler and Masington quickly rattled off a long list. They suggested, among other things, improving the landscaping around the car lot and using lower-intensity lights. They asked that the dealership shut down the loudspeaker system completely and switch to personal beepers. They proposed that the bay doors of the auto shop be closed at the end of the day and that some sort of noise barrier be installed along the open second-floor windows to keep sound inside the shop.

Harter says many of the suggestions, such as the use of beepers, have been tried before and failed. Some are impossible, he says, as was the case with installing sound barriers over the second-floor windows, which are required to be kept open for ventilation.

Faced with such an impasse, some people would throw in the towel. But some people aren't car salesmen. Perhaps it goes back to that inviolable car salesman's credo: Never let anyone leave the lot dissatisfied. And in the grand tradition of a breed that can sell ice to Eskimos, Harter's troops persisted, in the belief that they could sell the notion of tranquility to Ziegler and Masington.

"They asked what could they do for me personally." Masington recalls. "They kept saying they wanted to take care of us personally." The men say that they were confused at first, until they realized they were being offered incentives -- in much the same way prospective car buyers are offered rebates and other goodies -- if they refrained from protesting when Kendall Toyota appeared before county commissioners asking for a zoning change.

Masington and Ziegler say Kendall Toyota personnel director Jack Merriman offered them myriad inducements, including new roofs for their houses and free house-painting. Alternatively, they might have chosen a new washer and dryer, they recall. Or a new color TV set. The men say Merriman even offered them the use of a new Toyota for the weekend.

"I was insulted," says Ziegler. "I couldn't believe that they would be that low. I'm not interested in washers and dryers. I just want them to take care of the problems."

Adds Masington: "I'm not saying that I was shocked that they did it. More saddened. The result that we were looking for is to solve the problem in the neighborhood, not to improve the television that I watch."

Though Adkins, who was present when Merriman made his pitch, says he was taken aback by the offer, chief financial officer Robert Harter thinks Ziegler and Masington misunderstood the gesture. "What we offered these people was nothing more than we've offered other people in the past," he says, stressing that the pitch had nothing to do with the imminent zoning issue. He realizes that having a car dealership as a neighbor isn't always pleasant, Harter explains, which is why Kendall Toyota is eager to compensate in any way possible. In the past, when big construction projects came up on the car lot, the dealership painted some of the nearby homes and provided new roofs. Kendall Toyota has also offered great deals to residents who want to buy a new car, too, he notes. "Our intentions are honorable," Harter adds.

"This was simply Kendall Toyota's way of trying to be a good neighbor," emphasizes Bruce Rubin, a public relations consultant for the dealership. "I think the real problem here is that we have not done a good enough job communicating with the neighbors and letting them know what we are trying to do here.


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