Will record auto sales simmer down in 2017?

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As he buffs away smudges and fingerprints from a high-end Chevrolet Corvette before the opening of the Michigan International Auto Show in Grand Rapids, Jason Burrell sees the state of the automotive industry as an example of better times.

Burrell is a project manager for Show Fleet. His company’s job is to make sure all the shiny new models on the floor at DeVos Place Convention Center stay that way.

“We travel around the nation, going from show to show, making sure the vehicles are in the right place, inspected, cleaned,” he explained.

When it comes to the auto industry, he has seen dull turn to bright over the last few years.

“I’ve been doing this for five years and populations and numbers in crowds have been increasing each year,” Burrell said. “There’s more and more people coming to the auto shows. Grand Rapids is one place where a lot of people come to the auto show to come check out cars, which means that more people are looking to buy.”

The numbers tell the story. At the start of the recession, light vehicle sales — your average car, truck and SUV sales — in the U.S. dropped from an average of just over 16 million a year to 10.4 million vehicles in 2009. By 2016, those numbers had rebounded to 17.5 million, the highest sales figures since the early 2000s.

But there are some early indicators sales may slow in 2017. January, which is a typically slow month to begin with, is expected to show a slight decrease in sales from January 2016.

However, small declines can be easily offset by a good month or two.

“We’re forecasting increases almost across the board in all of our departments,” said Jason Deutsch, the general sales manager for Sharp Automotive in Grand Rapids. “So while there’s been some news out there that things are starting to flatten out, we’re certainly hoping to see it move in the right direction.”

During the tough times from 2008 through 2012, just about every segment of the auto industry — from manufacturers to dealerships — took cost-cutting measures. West Michigan parts suppliers did the same.

Experts say those measures will help smooth out future bumps in sales, which is good news for those whose livelihoods depend on the industry.

“It brings the manufactures back every year knowing that people are coming to look at the cars and it helps the market,” Burrell said.

According to 2016 data from The Right Place, Inc., an economic development agency for the region, there are more than 52,000 automotive jobs in West Michigan, up 40 percent from 2009.>>PDF: West Michigan auto industry jobs

The most auto-related jobs are in Kent County, where more than 20,000 people are in the business. That number is 60 percent higher than it was seven years ago. The county with the next highest number of auto industry jobs is Calhoun, nearly 6,000 jobs.–24 Hour News 8’s Marlee Ginter contributed to this report.

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