GM bankruptcy forever linked to Harlem dealership

NEW YORK Mon Jun 1, 2009 12:46pm EDT

1 of 2. The General Motors Corp.'s Harlem Auto Mall dealership showroom is seen in this file image in New York April 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Files

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Motors Corp's bankruptcy will forever be tied to one dealership in an often-ignored neighborhood due to the quirks of U.S. bankruptcy law.

Before GM filed its historic bankruptcy on Monday, Chevrolet-Saturn of Harlem made its own Chapter 11 filing. The dealership's move gave the automaker legal access to its preferred bankruptcy court in Manhattan.

Normally a Detroit-based company such as GM would file in Michigan or Delaware, where it is incorporated. The only way for it to file in New York would be through a subsidiary that did most of its business in New York or was incorporated in the state.

Court papers appear to describe a car dealer that sold significantly more corporate bonds than Camaros, running up $40 billion of debts and obligations to unions.

Rather than try to pinpoint the financial state of the dealership, GM simply listed its own consolidated creditors and assets with the affiliate, which is typical in such a case, said Greg Werkheiser, a bankruptcy lawyer with Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell in Wilmington, Delaware.

Once the attorneys handling the General Motors bankruptcy decided they wanted to file the case in Manhattan, known for its expertise and speed in handling huge bankruptcies such as Enron and WorldCom, they needed to find a way to bring it to Broadway.

The technique has been used before. Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the second-largest mall owner in the United States, recently used its South Street Seaport unit in New York to file for bankruptcy in Manhattan.

The problem for GM: of the 174 affiliates listed in its annual report, none appear to satisfy the requirements for a New York filing. That's where the Harlem dealership came in.

The dealership on Second Avenue in East Harlem opened a few years ago with much fanfare as an investment in a minority-owned business in a struggling neighborhood.

However, the franchise did not work out as planned and GM took it over, becoming a rare company-owned store that the automaker planned to run until another franchisee could be found.

As the government's deadline for GM to restructure neared, the dealership became something far more valuable: a way to file for bankruptcy in Manhattan.

On Monday morning, the dealership was open and showed no signs it had filed for bankruptcy, with employees walking through a showroom stocked with vehicles including Saturn Aura sedans and Cadillac Escalades.

A man who said he was the owner, but declined to further identify himself, told Reuters that he had no comment on the bankruptcy.

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