Innovation-packed new Ford dealership opens at auto mall

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The new Cochrane location of Northstar Ford is up and running, and it’s setting the tone for Ford dealerships throughout the globe in terms of both visual design and building innovation.

“It’s the first one in Canada,” he said of new dealership design standard, which featuring floor-to-ceiling glass and a massive, curved front facade. 

“There’s two in the States, and I think a couple in Australia.”

One of the most technologically-fascinating elements of the new building is what goes on in that floor-to-ceiling glass as the outside sun runs its daily course. Electrical pulses generate a tint in the glass, ensuring the optimal amount of sunlight enters the building to create efficiency in both hot and cold months.

It’s a little along the lines of those Transitions eyeglass lenses, but with the majority of the building covered in glass, it’s a much more complex process.

“It’s a smart, intuitive building to what’s going on with the sun,” he said.

“Basically, there are electrical wires all in those mullions, and it starts to charge it up and there are ions in the panes of glass that now change colour to make the tint happen.”

Giles and his Northstar group have owned Cochrane’s local Ford dealership since 2011, when they purchased the Railway Street location.

“I kept wrestling with building back down there, or what do we do,” he said.

“It was eleven years old when we got it. We’ve grown out of that building. We bought this new land three years ago, and put the shovel in the ground September 2018. Fourteen months later, we’re in it.”

The new Northstar Ford location is located in south Cochrane’s unofficial ‘auto mall’. The area also including Toyota, Nissan and Chrysler/Dodge dealerships. Giles said the auto mall just sort of happened that way, as opposed to a coordinate effort from the owners of all of the dealerships to build on the spot.

“We don’t know many of these guys, actually,” he said of the other owners. 

“First of all, you can’t build them anywhere because there are certain zoning rules, and then they were up here. To find four, five or six acres, this land was available, they happened to be up here, we thought ‘Well, why don’t we just go up because we’re all in the same area now.’”

“It wasn’t like we had a big meeting, it was just actually a fluke.”

The Northstar Ford owner also owns locations in Fort McMurray, Fort McKay and their original location in Crowfoot.

“The community feel here and Fort McMurray, they’re similar towns even though they don’t have the same heritage,” he said.

“It feels like to me, anyway, is that most people in this area would actually prefer to buy off of us. They don’t want to go to the city, they want to actually spend their money locally. There’s that ‘feel’.”

“For example Light Up Cochrane, that thing’s crazy, all those people. It was mayhem, it was awesome. We had enough food there for I think a thousand people, we thought ‘No problem.’ We ran out an hour early!”

There are parallels between Giles and General Motors dealership owner Gary Sartorio, who owns a dealership near Crowfoot (Shaganappi) and will soon be opening a location of his own in Cochrane. Instead of joining the others up at the auto mall, Sartorio and Shaganappi GM made the decision to build on the site of the former Smitty’s restaurant, land Sartorio has owned for over a decade.

“If I owned that piece of dirt and it was big enough, I wouldn’t have moved up here,” said Giles. 

“I understand why he did it, I would have done the same thing.”

The design standards of the striking new Ford dealerships are sleek and ultramodern, which could have posed a problem if they conflicted with the western heritage design guidelines recommended and often mandated by the Town of Cochrane.

“I love the heritage, [told the town] let me go to town on the landscaping, but we need to leave Ford alone on the building,” said Giles. 

“I said to Ford, leave me alone on the landscaping because we have to take care of Cochrane and also it’s my heritage. It worked out really well. Even with how modern this is, you can tell this is probably the most western-feeling business I would say maybe in town now.”

Mixed in with the modern lines and innovations of the new building are thoughtful western touches including the brands of local ranchers, barnwood furniture, old wagons in the parking lot, and a new community-facing bronze piece created by local foundry Studio West.

“We had a soft opening last Friday where we had various ranchers from the community come and put their brand with our family’s brands on our sign,” he said.

“My family ranched out by Cochrane. Cochrane has a rich western heritage. My grandfather comes over from Ireland in 1909, he is a farmer and rancher down by Sheppard, their land gets expropriated and they move to Cochrane in 1955.”

The dealership was open for business beginning December 2. As far as the timing of the opening is concerned in the context of the current provincial economic climate, Giles said he considers himself an “eternal optimist.”

If the economy’s a little tougher, it’s almost like you have to do a little bit more to actually get what business is out there,” he said. 

“Line Three is opening up for a hundred thousand barrels of oil to be going here my January the first, I think Trans Mountain’s actually going to happen someday. We’re not in it for the five-year deal, this is generational for us. It’s not just about what’s going to happen next year that we’re going to plan on.”

And what does the owner of four Ford dealerships drive? A Ford Raptor pickup, and a new Lincoln Aviator.