Dream Car Wash 25 Years in the Making
A drawing hangs on the wall of Michael Racine’s spacious third-floor office above his WashLand Car Wash. The 10-year-old sketch is evidence of how he wanted his car wash to look and perform. His dreams of car wash ownership actually date back 25 years.

Today, he has that dream wash, combining a top-performing automatic and four self-serve bays at 310 Margaret St. in Plattsburgh, NY. The Belanger Vector touch-free automatic has been in operation less than a year and the Carolina Pride self-serve bays opened just last March, but the enterprise already shows the worth of many years of study, planning and teamwork.

The satisfaction of area car owners is growing rapidly, even though WashLand is “a little more expensive” than nearby competition. Racine is looking forward to equipping a second automatic bay in one of those self-serve bays. A detail bay is presently used for storage or sheltering one of Michael’s prized muscle cars, but further development must wait for now.
Michael’s wife, Isabel, is marketing manager. WashLand Car Wash has garnered a number of commercial and government accounts to help assure a steady flow of business. Some of those, such as the city police department and some businesses, wash their cars during their own slow times. They frequently use the car wash when its business is also slow, which is a boost to security around the wash.

Racine invested $8,000 for custom tokens that customers can buy in advance and save money with quantity purchases. He uses tokens himself as a business builder, sometimes giving them as tips at restaurants or a barbershop. WashLand prepaid and gift cards can also be purchased with cash or credit cards and offer as much as 50 percent savings on future washes. The WashLand name as applied to both the car wash and the longer-established Washland Laundry-Mat is trademarked.

On “Wacky Wednesdays,” both the WashLand Car Wash and the nearby WashLand Laundry-Mat — a coin-operated laundry —whack regular prices to whip up midweek volume. At the car wash, the regular $12 premium automatic wash package costs just $8. If drivers use their prepaid wash cards, they can get that top-grade automatic wash for a net cost of just $5.33 on Wacky Wednesdays.

Roland Racine, Michael’s father and business partner in some ventures, manages the Laundry-Mat owned by Michael.

“My Wash Cards are unique, and they’re probably the thing that saved me through this tough winter,” Michael Racine says. “It was a major investment, but it has been well received by the public.” Weather in the far northeast corner of New York State has been rainy much of the past year, he said.

WashLand Car Wash doesn’t need attendants as such. Racine and his long-time assistant, Glenn Brawn — who has been with him for 12 years — keep things picked up and running smoothly, with occasional help from Isabel’s 16-year-old son Geno, and Racine’s nephew Tyler. Bonnie Whalen, who manages his multiple apartment units, “does a great job of keeping me organized,” Racine comments.

One of the most unusual aspects of WashLand Car Wash is the structure in which it is housed. The entire floor above the car wash is comprised of four upscale apartments, and Racine’s large, skylighted office is above that on a third level. From his office, he can see his Laundry-Mat and some of the 50 apartments he now owns. He can also view nearby Lake Champlain, situated on the border between New York and Vermont. All of his enterprises are within a five-minute walk of his office.

Some persons questioned the wisdom of putting apartments above a car wash, but Racine had anticipated and answered their doubts. He had checked on other such structures elsewhere in the country and found out they were successful. He also knew from his own experience that tenants quickly tune out routine noises of nearby activity. “One of my apartments is right by the train tracks, and after a week or two they don’t even notice, even though I can hear the trains at my house a mile away,” he reports.

Noise has little chance of penetrating above the car wash, though, thanks to 24 inches of packed insulation, two or three layers of sheetrock, and other noise-deadening material. “Some prospective tenants have wanted to come in while the car wash was operating, and they’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Racine says. Tenants have their own walkways, which don’t interfere with car traffic.

All of Racine’s property and enterprises, including his AutoLand car lot, are within a five-minute walk of his office. The car lot operates unattended also, but those interested in purchasing one of the 10 cars usually displayed there can call Racine and he’ll meet them for a closer inspection or test drive.

He built the car lot about six years ago, an outgrowth of the passion for cars which he evidenced while he was still in high school. In 2000, he renovated an old rundown lot, building his reputation with the local zoning board for doing whatever he promised in property improvements. “I sell maybe 50 cars a year there,” he says.

Racine’s other property acquisitions in Plattsburgh have built up gradually. Using profits from his own car trading, he bought his first apartment house at age 19, early in his college studies at Plattsburgh State College, the local unit of the State University of New York system. The do-it-yourself laundry which many of his student tenants used was in need of rehab and Racine bought it in the late 1980s.

When fire ravaged that structure in 1996, Racine replaced the coin-op laundry with what he determined would be “the nicest and best possible.” Competing with boxes full of entries, it was named one of the nicest in the country by an industry trade journal in 1997 — but its most important impression was made on his customers, the people of Plattsburgh and its governing boards.

His enduring passion for cars kept driving Racine toward that other goal, the idea of owning a car wash that could do far better than the existing car washes in Plattsburgh could do on his own vehicles.

“I subscribed to and studied every car wash magazine,” he recalls. “I studied car washes in this country all the way to California and even in Europe.” He developed his unique vision of what a car wash should be.

At a bank foreclosure sale, Racine bought an old motel and associated buildings, including a bar, restaurant and some apartments in two buildings and made plans for a massive conversion from what had been a community eyesore. He proposed to replace the 28 units with 14 modern apartments and his long-sought car wash.

Favorably inclined by Racine’s track record in improving or replacing other structures and businesses, the zoning board approved his plans “hands down.” He got bank approval quickly, too, because he had such solid research.
“Dee Clark from the New York State Small Business Development Center (SBDC) was very important prior to getting my bank loan,” Racine says. “She helped me prepare a superb business plan and all my financial documents such as business projections, cash flows, construction breakdown and disbursement schedules.”

Champlain National Bank, a hometown bank, had faith in Racine’s unique project, too, and allowed him to act as his own general contractor, working closely with him throughout the entire construction phase. Lisa Roberts was his loan officer at the bank.

Other key players in building and equipping the WashLand Car Wash include Doug Deal, Huron Valley Sales, distributor for the in-floor heat and hot water heat systems. “Their new state-of-the-art high efficiency boilers take little room mounted high on the wall of the equipment room and save substantially on the natural gas bill,” Racine notes.

Michael Seale, owner of North East Washing Systems LLC, is distributor for the Belanger Vector Rapid Wash automatic bay equipment, and also installed the Carolina Pride self-service equipment purchased from David Lang. The Vac-It-Up coin collection system (by Car-Nation, Inc.) was installed by Seale, too. With that system, Racine can easily and safely collect coins from the vacuums, self-service bays and vending machine from inside, unseen by anyone, and then go up to his office. Racine can also restock his vending machine from inside.

An American changer allows customers to purchase tokens. The usual discount applied to token purchases gives customers $150 in wash value for $100.
Proper chemical delivery is assured by regular visits of Gene Wycoff, products distributor from Ecolab Blue Coral. “He titrates the product levels and keeps me well informed of all new products Blue Coral is offering,” Racine says.

The car wash is a gleaming invitation to drivers. Wash bays are faced with a shiny ceramic surface bonded to concrete blocks. A checkerboard pattern of white and black is paired with red signage panels to provide an exterior border between the ground-level wash bays and the apartments above. Everything in the bays has been designed for maximum customer convenience, and a Portal TI by Unitec Electronics enables payment by cash, credit card, wash or gift cards. The automatic washes are priced at $7, $9, $11 and $12. WashLand Auto Wash is the only wash in the area to offer Rain-X as one of the pluses in its automatic bay.

The self-serve bays operate in dollar denominations only. At the start, drivers deposit $3 for three-and-one-half minutes, but then they can add 70-second additions to their wash time for each additional dollar. Big timers help them to easily see their remaining time, and an audible signal also warns them that their time is about to expire. While drivers can use quarters in those bays, more and more are using one- and five-dollar bills, Racine reports. “Quarters are obsolete,” in his view.

Out in front, facing passing cars, WashLand has two dual vacuum islands clad in polished chrome. Drivers can choose from turbo vacuums, fragrance and shampoo or spot-remover offerings, paying for their selection with quarters or tokens.

All the wash bays operate on a 24/7 basis. A $25,000 sign, shaped like a license plate, identifies the wash. A lower panel gives time and temperature and constantly delivers between 10 and 20 selling messages, which Racine can program from a computer in his office. A Florida manufacturer made the sign to Racine’s specs and shipped it to WashLand where it is mounted on two large steel poles.

While the need to accumulate both resources and business experience may have delayed Michael Racine in building his dream car wash, that dream has come true in WashLand Car Wash. It’s helping car owners among the 22,000-plus residents of Plattsburgh conveniently achieve and maintain a beautiful appearance for their vehicles.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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