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Northeast Ohio auto sales declined sharply in October from a year ago, despite holding steady nationally.

U.S. sales were essentially flat in October. But in the 21 Northeast Ohio counties tracked by the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association, sales fell about 22 percent.

Car dealers called it another sign of a local economy that’s in worse shape than other parts of the country. Though there have been some signs of an economic recovery nationwide, Northeast Ohio is suffering through some of its worst unemployment in 25 years.

Lou Vitantonio, director of legal and regulatory affairs for the dealers group, said the local environment remains challenging, but he is optimistic that things will improve.

“It’s going to take time, but it’s getting better,” Vitantonio said.

The most troubled automaker, both locally and nationally, was Chrysler. In Northeast Ohio, Chrysler’s sales were down 59 percent in October, nearly double the 30 percent decline posted nationwide.

In June, Chrysler canceled the franchise agreements of 789 dealerships, including 22 in Northeast Ohio. At the time, the company said it wanted each store to be able to sell more vehicles and become more profitable.

But locally, the opposite has happened. In October 2008, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge stores here averaged 21 sales per store. Despite having 33 percent fewer stores now, last month’s sales were roughly 13 vehicles per store.

Paul Tomko, manager of family owned Ed Tomko Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge in Avon Lake, blamed most of the decline on low inventories. Chrysler shut all of its factories for more than two months this summer as it went through bankruptcy, eventually merging with Italian automaker Fiat.

Soon after it emerged from that process, the federal Cash for Clunkers program drew off much of the inventory that remained on dealer lots.

“We’ve been down to a four-days supply,” Tomko said. Historically, dealers have carried enough cars on a lot to last 30 days or more.

The same factors lowered General Motors’ production. But that company kept some of its plants running during its bankruptcy, and it was faster to restart production than some of its competitors toward the end of the summer.

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Article courtesy of: Cleveland.com

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