New business rising in downtown Lenoir

Mar. 30, 2014 @ 07:39 AM

Dustin Hartley stood with his sleeves rolled up and hair falling in his face as he bent over a throttle body, working to take it apart. Even before the grand opening of his new auto garage in downtown Lenoir, Hartley was hard at work on one of his passions.

Hartley hopes soon to his new auto garage in a long-unused garage site. The building's address is 118 Lewis Price Blvd., but the entrances faces the back of the Lenoir Fire Department on the lot below the street. The place still needs a lot of work -- as Hartley worked, nearby picture frames at the edge of the dusty floor leaned against the battered brick walls, and two large toolboxes overflowed with tools, batteries, papers and cough drops -- but compared to what it was, Hartley has made significant improvements.

After receiving rezoning permits from the city, Hartley has been working non-stop to bring his new place of business to full working order. He calls it Phoenix Lenoir Motor Garage.

“For me, it’s kind of like a new beginning. This is coming back home, a new chance at everything, so to speak,” Hartley said.

The old brick building was built in the 1920s, Hartley estimated. The condition was terrible when Hartley first arrived. He spent a month on the floor in order to get the grease off. The two pits were coated in 3 to 4 inches of grime, and the windows were painted over with multiple layers of paint, blocking out the light.

“It was a dungeon. There wasn’t even a lock on the door,” Hartley said.

Hartley did not start out as a grease monkey teenager, spending countless hours under the hood of a car. His dream job was to be a mail carrier. While attending West Caldwell High School, Hartley worked at the post office for over a year and a half. He started working on cars because of that job -- his mail delivery vehicle constantly broke down, and he decided to take classes so he could fix it himself.

After graduation, he left for Phoenix, Ariz., to study mechanics. Shortly after, he received a job offer to be a full-time mail carrier in Lenoir. However, it was too late for Hartley to turn back, and he continued to pursue mechanics, working at Jaguar dealerships in Washington, D.C., and Asheville. He decided to open his own shop due to frustration with the auto mechanic industry.

“There are a lot of good people in the industry, but I also think that there are a lot of people who take advantage, so I try to combat that,” Hartley said. “Mechanics have a bad rep in general. They’re working on something the general public doesn’t understand, so there’s a lot of opportunity for people to be taken advantage of. It’s so hard to find a good repair shop.”

He opened a shop in Asheville, specializing in Jaguars, and worked there for five to six years, he said. After his divorce, he decided it was time for something new, and like a phoenix, he wanted to come back from the ashes of a difficult time in his life.

“I just decided to come back home,” Hartley said. “My uncle told me, ‘You may only see your family altogether 10 more times, being all split up.’ He was stressing the importance of home. I’m working in the town where my grandfather was sheriff before I was born. It means a lot to me to walk down the same streets as my grandfather.”

While he is unsure of when Phoenix Lenoir will officially open, Hartley is excited to be back in his hometown doing something he loves.

“I’m proud of my town. Twenty years ago, I was ready to get out, but now, I’m glad to be back,” Hartley said.