It was something straight out of a recurring nightmare—the one where you’re late for school, and late for a test you forgot to study for.
And John Powers was riddled with anxiety.
As he walked into a town hall meeting a few years back, Powers was not only unprepared
for a meeting he had learned about just three hours prior, but he sensed the citizens of Ossining, NY were out for blood.
“They came at us with pitchforks,” recalls Powers, the owner of Powers Restorations.
Back in early 2015, residents around Powers’ body shop seemed intent on putting it out of business. The shop facility had been at its location in a largely residential area near the Hudson River for nearly 30 years, but the area was suddenly being re-zoned. Businesses like body shops were no longer welcomed.
Powers, a 20-year industry veteran who ran a $1.5-million-per-year shop, figured his only chance to save his business was to put the small town’s citizens at ease, explaining his focus on using environmentally-conscious products like waterborne paint.
“It was a very hard decision to go to that meeting—it was very stressful; I’m not a public speaker,” Powers says. “There was a group of people that had started a whole movement. They said, ‘Our children are going to be poisoned.’ There were a bunch of property owners around here that had the same problem; they think all the fumes are going to go into the air.”
Dealing with residents who resist having a collision repair business nearby is something many shop owners will encounter at some point in their career. Here’s a look at how shop owners can overcome such obstacles.
Seek legal advice.
Fortunately for Powers, he sought the advice of a lawyer in 2015. As a result, he was quickly put at ease and was able to rest assured that he had already updated every necessary permit to continue operation. For example, he had gotten a fairly difficult-to-attain county health permit finalized weeks in advance of the aforementioned town hall meeting.
That allowed his business to be grandfathered in and avoid further zoning concerns.
“I talked to a lawyer and he gave me the advice that ‘You’re perfectly legal, but that’s not going to stop these (citizens) from getting pissed off,’” Powers recalls. “The advice he gave me was that I wasn’t doing any wrong.”
Shop owners can often find a reliable lawyer by consulting with a trade association.
Read all permits.
Michael Josemans, the owner of Beal Paint and Body in Fort Walton, Fla., received immense resistance from that town’s citizens last Fall, while he initially attempted to relocate a shop business that does $80,000 per month in gross sales. Nearby residents petitioned against Josemans’ new facility, fearing that it would produce noise pollution, paint and chemical fumes, and decrease their property values.
“I was just trying to get a 10,000-square-foot facility built,” Josemans says. “That land was commercial business general, which is the most liberal zoning, and that’s why I purchased it.”
That didn’t matter, however, to 170 residents who promptly signed a petition to oppose the body shop after Josemans paid to have trees cleared near a few residents’ backyard fence in August 2019.
“My first mistake was to clear land and not have the permit to clear it,” Josemans says. “I thought
you could just clear trees off your land. (Looking back), I would wait for a development order to
be approved; most people wait for that before they clear land.”
That incident illustrates how imperative it is for shop owners to look at permit information at city and municipality offices, which typically make such information readily available to business owners.
In Powers’ situation back in 2015, the permit file involved was the size of a phone book. Still, he forced himself to study it. That gave the shop owner at least some level of confidence when he was faced with that all-important town hall meeting. Along those lines, Powers learned that, if he complied with an environmental survey, that it would assuage county officials.
During his time speaking before a town gathering, Powers meticulously explained how his shop sprays waterborne paint, and that his cross-draft paint booth system eliminated much chance for pollutants in the air. He explained that he had no qualms about spending around $20,000 for such a set up—because he cared about both his community and being compliant. In speaking to his community, he silenced many of the negative stereotypes associated with auto repair facilities.
“I educated them, and ever since I haven’t had any trouble,” Powers notes. “After I went to the meeting and talked to them, it subsided and I’ve had no issue. When these things come up, you’ve got to confront them, just like you’ve got to educate adjusters when they come to your shop for insurance jobs—you have to educate the community. Because people think we’re horrible people that run a chop shop or something.”
Josemans was similarly open to speaking with disgruntled residents in Fort Walton, Fla., last Fall. After all, the longtime shop owner knew, judging by a few angry social media posts, that residents were largely uninformed about his business practices. The situation illustrated how a shop can use social media to explain their repair processes and the fact that the business meets or exceeds environmental requirements.
Extend an olive branch.
In Powers’ experience, there’s usually one member of a community that speaks loudest and serves as the ring-leader in drumming up negativity toward a shop. And, if a shop owner can speak with that person in a compassionate, 1-on-1 manner, that negativity can be stopped in its tracks.
Also, simply being a kind, conscientious member of the community can help a shop owner assemble allies during disputes like the one Powers faced with local residents in 2015. Case in point: he found out about that all-important town hall meeting from someone who was actually serving on the board that appeared poised to run him out of business. But, since Powers had done exemplary work on her vehicle in the past, that board member felt an obligation to inform him about the meeting.
So, Powers says, extend an olive branch to your community. Throw a meet-and-greet barbecue or a community appreciation day. Take part in any and all local charity events possible.
“Meet people and tell people in the neighborhood ‘We’re here.’ You’ve got to put a face to it,” he says. “The people around you, take care of them. Because, even if those people aren’t the ones that are mad at you, maybe they know the ones that are, and they can say ‘John’s a good guy.’
“You’ve got to talk to these people. After that meeting (in 2015) was over, after 6 months went by, I stopped having issues. And, some of the people I saw in that meeting are now my customers.”