CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte-based Hendrick Automotive Group will build a $55 million, four-dealership auto mall on Bruton Smith Boulevard in Cabarrus County, the car dealer s latest expansion as the economy improves and major road projects approach completion.

Gene Cocchi, Hendrick s vice president of real estate, said the auto mall will be built on 40 acres across from Hendrick s existing Toyota and Honda dealerships near Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hendrick hopes to open the new auto mall in late 2014.

There are going to be a lot of cars at the new site, Cocchi told the Observer at Hendrick s Monroe Road headquarters Tuesday. It s a big investment.

The new Speedway Auto Mall will have about 700 cars among its dealerships. Hendrick also hopes to sign two additional manufacturers, bringing the total number of dealerships at the site to six.

Three of the dealerships Kia, Fiat, and Volkswagen will be brand new, and the fourth, Hendrick Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, will move from its current location in Concord to the new auto mall. Hendrick closed its acquisition of the former Tim Marburger dealership in Concord earlier this year.

The auto mall is Hendrick s second recent major project north of Charlotte. Earlier this year, the Hendrick Luxury Auto Mall opened at the interchange of Interstate 485 and Interstate 77. That project, an auto mall with BMW, Lexus and Mercedes dealerships, was also $55 million, Hendrick said.

Like the Luxury Auto Mall, the Speedway Auto Mall project was put on hold for years. Hendrick purchased 30 acres at the site in 2004, and bought the remaining 10 acres earlier this year when the project was finalized.

The company was waiting for road projects such as the completion of I-485 and the widening of I-85 and then for the effects of the recession to pass, Cocchi said.

Vehicle sales in the U.S. this year are expected to total more than 14.2 million, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, up from last year s total of 13.5 million. That s still down, however, from pre-recession sales levels that regularly topped 16 million a year.

The number of new-car dealerships in the U.S. is also back on the rise, according to NADA s 2012 report, released earlier this year. In the first quarter of 2012, the number of dealerships rose by 66. Still, the industry was hit by thousands of closures during the recession: According to the NADA, there were 17,540 new-car dealerships as of January 2012, down from 21,725 in 2003.

Hendrick, which is privately held, is set to have its best year for sales this year, company officials said, with sales at its 85 dealerships on track to top $6 billion.

Hendrick officials see the completion of major road projects as critical. I-485 is supposed to be completed in late 2014, when the new auto mall opens, and will link I-77 to I-85. Work along the final stretch is proceeding: This weekend, the N.C. Department of Transportation will close I-85 North around I-485 to accommodate work on the new, $92 million interchange there.

The corridors are soon to be completed, said Cocchi, providing critical connectivity to draw enough traffic to Hendrick s auto malls. That just makes it more convenient and accessible.

The areas north of Charlotte have also seen enough demographic growth to support the new dealerships, Cocchi said.

The dealership buildings on the site will range from about 32,000 square feet to 45,000 square feet. Hendrick is also building an 80,000 square foot building for future use, where it hopes to lure another large carmaker to open a dealership on the site. The new auto mall will bring the total number of Hendrick stores in Charlotte to 27.

The land near West Cabarrus Church abuts a campground used by fans during races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Cocchi said Hendrick will build a better access road for the church as part of the project.

The company is securing permits to begin clearing the land, which it hopes to begin as early as next month, Cocchi said. After that, Hendrick will have to blast bedrock carefully, so as to avoid damaging nearby hotels and other buildings before beginning construction on the building.

The site will stretch along Bruton Smith Boulevard for more than a third of a mile. Cocchi said size and concentration of dealerships will help further raise Hendrick s profile in the area.

Our goal is to be seen, he said. And this is great for that.

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