Thefts drove dealer into action
Geoff Pohanka, president of a dealership group with 13 stores in the Washington area, could feel the crime wave battering suburban Maryland.
As recently as 2004, about 18,500 car thefts were being reported annually in Prince George's County, home to nearly 900,000 people. Thieves were stealing more cars in the county east of the nation's capital than in the entire state of Virginia.
In an average year, about 15 of them came from Pohanka's stores and repair shops.
Pohanka, 55, a third-generation dealer whose family weathered the riots and unrest of the 1960s by moving a five-decade-old dealership from downtown Washington to Maryland's Prince George's County, pondered another move.
"We were faced with a question: Either do something about the auto thefts or move our business out of the county," he said.
At that time, the county did not have any police officers assigned to auto theft and just 2 percent of reported thefts led to a prosecution.
Rather than leave, Pohanka chose to do something about the crime. Along with other local business leaders, he nudged county officials and the police to swing into action.
The wheels of government started to turn. The county executive gave Pohanka a seat on a task force that made recommendations to stop the thefts: hire more police officers, buy equipment to detect stolen cars quickly and close down the chop shops that profited from them.
Police even shut down a criminal ring that shipped stolen cars through the Port of Baltimore.
It worked. Car thefts in the county have fallen more than 80 percent from the crest of the crime wave to about 3,500 a year.
Pohanka takes a share of the credit but says county officials did the real work.
"I was a spark, but I was just mobilizing the people that could have done it all along," he said.
He moved his Honda and Hyundai stores to a new location about 7 miles away but still in Prince George's County. A new Volkswagen dealership will soon open at the location with room for a fourth store to follow.
"I made the move, I'm excited I made it, and now I think the future's very bright," Pohanka says. "Our location is better, and we're going to benefit because the crime rate is down."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at email@example.com.