April 20, 2014

Nonprofit gives cars a new lease on life

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By Roger L. Noyes
Correspondent

Mechanic Jerry Blow knows that cars, like people, deserve another chance.

Patches of flaking paint, a worn-out clutch, broken door hinges — to Blow, defects like these are not enough to signal the end of the road, but a new beginning.

That’s why he and two of his customers recently joined forces to start a not-for-profit that rehabs donated cars and sells them at cost to Vermonters in financial need.

Called New Beginnings Garage, the Williston-based organization began operations in late November. It is modeled after a similar outfit in Burlington, known as Good News Garage.

For the cost of parts and labor at a rate of $40 per hour, Vermonters within 200 percent of the federal poverty line who do not own a vehicle may be eligible to buy one of the reduced-price autos fixed up by New Beginnings.

“People need this in Vermont. You are going to find people that are working poor who might not have credit to buy a car, but don’t qualify for help through state agencies,” said Blow. “This is for people that are kind of in limbo.”

Car prices are based on income. And so, if repair costs to a vehicle are minimal — say $100 — then the overall price might be marked up, commensurate with the buyer’s income, based on a sliding scale. If repairs are too costly, then the car will be auctioned off and the proceeds return to New Beginnings’ coffers.

Blow said he began tinkering with the idea of starting the not-for-profit about five years ago when he opened his current shop, B&M Sales and Service, on Dorset Lane in Williston.

Eventually, he mentioned the idea to two of his customers, Rich Potvin and Sondra Cohoon, who both said they wanted to get involved.

“Just in talking about it, they jumped right on it,” said Blow.

Cohoon first met Blow almost 10 years ago when her Ford Taurus broke down. Back then, she had asked to borrow Blow’s tools to fix the car because she didn’t have enough money at the time to pay someone else for repairs.

Though Cohoon has some car repair training — she took an auto mechanics class at her Texas high school about 20 years ago — her main role in New Beginnings is handling the organizational side of business. Cohoon’s official title is director of financial affairs.

“The upgrading of cars over the years has outstripped my knowledge of how to fix them,” she said. “I mainly work with the organization of (New Beginnings), trying to keep it in line before it gets out of line.”

Potvin got involved in New Beginnings in much the same way that Cohoon did.

“We were sitting here after I picked up my vehicle one day. Jerry had told me it wasn’t worth fixing any more,” said Potvin. “Then he started talking to me about doing a nonprofit.”

A native Vermonter, Potvin is currently pursuing a degree in business management at Johnson State College and said he has an interest in the field of not-for-profit administration.

As of late last month, New Beginnings had not yet sold any cars, but Blow anticipated that average sale prices would range from $600 to $800. He said he based those figures on the average sale price of an automobile at Good News Garage, which uses a similar pricing model.

“Some cars might cost a couple hundred dollars to fix,” he said. “Some we might get that don’t take much work and we can get it right out the door.”

Any revenue earned from the sale of vehicles would circulate back into the business for operating expenses. None of the three business partners is being paid for the work they do.

The three have even spent a little of their own money — over $1,000 — just to get the business started. Expenses have included not-for-profit filing fees, office equipment and rent for the garage. Under the terms of their license, the New Beginnings facility must be kept separate from Jerry’s regular business, B&M Sales and Service.

“We all collectively put up the money to start paying the bills,” said Blow.

New Beginnings is located in garage space connected to B&M, which makes it easy for Blow to use his own tools for the volunteer work.

So far they’ve gotten about a dozen calls from people interested in buying cars. Before making any sales, however, Blow said he and his associates must meet with officials from Reach Up, a state program under the Vermont Agency of Human Services that he expects will play a role in clearing prospective buyers for eligibility. A meeting had been scheduled for earlier this week.

“Most of the people who have called, you tell them they have to go through a program,” he said. “I’ve just been taking down their information.”

Blow added that customers who receive cars from New Beginnings are also eligible for discounted repairs from B&M.

New Beginnings already received a couple donations before Christmas. The lane behind Blow’s shop was already lined with contributions, including a 1992 Honda Accord and a 1991 Jeep Cherokee.

Inside, the week before Christmas, Blow was working on a gray 1989 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

“They all need work,” he said of the donations. “It’s mainly cosmetics.”

When asked what kind of car New Beginnings is looking for, Blow said: “The main thing is we want people to donate something that is still serviceable.”

For information on New Beginnings, call 879-7400.

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