Late on Sept. 8, as Hurricane Irma loomed south of Florida, dealer Ed Napleton’s staff frantically moved hundreds of vehicles to two massive parking garages that Napleton had permission to use.
And a social media storm was born.
“We did everything right,” the CEO of Napleton Automotive Group, of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., told Automotive News. “People need to see we did everything right and if they do, they won’t have an ax to grind.”
But grind they did.
By Friday night, Tallahassee residents and Florida State University students were flooding social media sites and Napleton Infiniti of Tallahassee’s website, condemning the dealership for parking about 80 vehicles — mostly new — in one of the university’s six multistory parking garages. The cars occupied spaces people needed to use as they took shelter in a nearby basketball arena that FSU had decided to open to the public.
Napleton’s West Palm Beach Hyundai also faced public wrath after storing about 350 vehicles in a garage owned by a local shopping center, CityPlace, in West Palm Beach before the city decided to allow free public parking there Friday through Monday.
“I don’t want to blame the people,” Napleton said. “The public should take precedence over private businesses. The mayor acted properly, the garage acted properly and we acted properly.” The social media response was “uncalled for,” he said. “I should not have been roasted” on social media.
Napleton: Stores had permission.
Napleton Automotive Group owns 37 dealerships in six states, including 10 in Florida. It ranks No. 38 on Automotive News’ list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., with retail sales of 23,959 new vehicles in 2016.
Napleton says the dealership has had a five-year relationship with CityPlace as the “official car of the mall.” West Palm Beach Hyundai displays cars there and covers parking costs at the mall for people who buy a vehicle at the dealership. On Sept. 5, with Irma on the way, Napleton approached the owners of the CityPlace garage, made a deal, paid the fee and parked the store’s cars there.
Similarly, Napleton has had a relationship with FSU in Tallahassee since he opened his Infiniti store there in 2011. So he called the university officials and got permission to park his inventory in one of the university’s garages. “We even offered to pay them to put the cars in the garage and they said we didn’t have to,” Napleton said. “They gave us authority to do it.”
But after the school opened those spaces to residents, the dealership was slammed on social media. A Florida State student, Matt Reagen, tweeted his disapproval: “FSU let car dealerships park in our on-campus garages. Barely any spots for students to park their cars during the storm. Ridiculous.”
A reviewer on Yelp named Richard A. wrote, “Classless. This place gives even bad dealerships a bad name.” He and many others slapped the store with a one-star review, dragging the dealership’s overall rating down to one star.
Yelp now has posted above the reviews an “active cleanup alert” statement that read in part: “This business recently made waves in the news, which often means that people come to this page to post their views on the news. While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business. As a result, your posts to this page may be removed as part of our cleanup process.”
Facebook users claimed that other stores also stowed inventory in the CityPlace lot. “I hope Napleton’s West Palm Beach Hyundai, Roger Dean Chevrolet and any other dealerships who parked in the city garages will be more considerate of their West Palm Beach neighbors in the future,” one user wrote. “They have the money, resources, and ability to move their cars someplace else, while many of the local community do not. Bad form guys, bad form.”
All of Napleton’s cars at CityPlace and FSU were moved and returned to the dealerships by early afternoon on Tuesday, Sept. 12, Napleton said. But the entire experience left him frustrated. “No one could leave their house, there was a curfew and that’s a lot of cars to move for a little dealership,” he said. Napleton said the seven-story parking structure in West Palm Beach held 3,000 spots and “we had 350, so there were plenty of spaces.”
On Sept. 12, Napleton posted a statement on Facebook that in part explained that West Palm Beach Hyundai had “prearranged for paid parking in the CityPlace garage. Our dealership was completely unaware that Mayor [Jeri] Muoio and CityPlace would announce that the CityPlace garage would be made available to the public free of charge,” adding, “Rest assured that we would never knowingly park cars in a manner such as to deprive the public of their ability to shelter their cars in the event of an emergency.”
Napleton posted a similar statement on Facebook addressing the FSU problem: “Napleton Infiniti was advised that it could park its cars in the FSU lots and genuinely believed it was allowed to do so. Unbeknownst to us, the FSU official who conveyed this information had no actual authority to speak on FSU’s behalf.”
In addition, he told Automotive News, “We didn’t know the shelter was going to be” in a nearby arena.
As of Sept. 13, all of Napleton’s stores in Florida reopened with minimal storm damage. That left the parking controversy as the most damaging effect of Irma on his dealerships. “None of it is good when people think you’re a disingenuous individual,” said Napleton.
“If I was coming to one of these shelters and all these cars were parked there, I’d be upset, too. But the storm was headed another way and we had permission,” Napleton said. “If we inconvenienced any person at FSU, we’re sorry.”
In the future, he will be “much more careful” to double-check the authority of the person who authorizes parking and get clearance from the city.
But what else should he do differently, he asked: “Aren’t we entitled to protect our merchandise?”
Jackie Charniga contributed to this report.
What: Hurricane Irma
When: Hit Florida on Sept. 9
In Irma’s path: About 1,000 dealerships
Damaged vehicles in Tampa area: 80,000-120,000 est.
Damaged vehicles total: 200,000-400,000 est.
Change in sales week of Sept. 4-10: Florida, -56%; U.S., -7.0%
Other damage: Most dealerships saw only minor harm — lost signage, broken showroom glass, downed trees.
Ongoing issue: Electric outages
Source: Florida Automobile Dealers Association; Cox Automotive; J.D. Power