When Mario Biundo drives his Bentley around Walnut Creek, he gets stares -- sometimes, people even snap photos. Perhaps they are not used to seeing a car more synonymous with Rodeo Drive cruising down Ygnacio Valley Road.
But Biundo expects to change that as president of Bentley and Maserati of Walnut Creek, which opened earlier this year.
He said these cars -- which can cost more than $350,000 -- will be a more common sight around the city for a simple reason: "Walnut Creek means luxury," said Biundo, newly transplanted from La Jolla, where he was the general manager of Ferrari Maserati of San Diego.
And for a city government which forecasts multimillion-dollar budget deficits for the next eight years, these dealerships, and the other high-end businesses that have increasingly been calling Walnut Creek home, are a boon to their not-so-wealthy bottom line.
"New-auto sales are a real economic driver for us -- pun intended," said Walnut Creek Economic Development Manager Ron Gerber. So, too, are the dealership jobs, which often pay well and aren't seasonal.
Biundo opened the Walnut Creek Maserati dealership in May and the Bentley dealership this past month, both at the former Dirito Brothers Saab location on North Broadway. Before that, Bentley aficionados had to go to San Francisco or Silicon Valley to buy, Biundo said.
When he looked at where he should open his new business, Walnut Creek was the obvious choice.
"There was pent-up demand and the arrow pointed directly to the San Francisco East Bay," he said. "And Walnut Creek has that luxury-brand cachet."
That cachet comes from the city's reputation as a regional shopping destination with high-end brands such as Neiman Marcus and Tiffany & Co., he said. And the city is poised for growth in the upscale-goods market, he said, because luxury begets more luxury.
While Walnut Creek's streets may not be paved with gold, it is where people are increasingly coming to spend it, on everything from diamond baubles and chi-chi clothes to Bentley automobiles.
Destination of distinction
Maserati and Bentley are a natural fit because they're consistent with the city's evolving image, said Jay Hoyer, president of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce. Over the years the city's high-end retail shopping, with stores such as Apple, Tommy Bahama and Tiffany all coming downtown, has become increasingly high-profile.
"I don't see it as a transition; I see it as a direct line trend," Hoyer said. "The community is very comfortable with luxury brands here in town; you are not trying to build something that is out of place. It is something that has happened organically."
Hoyer says Broadway Plaza has been a big reason for Walnut Creek becoming a regional destination, the kind of retail hub most other cities don't have and can't easily create, he said. And with the downtown mall set to expand by 300,000 square feet in the next several years, Hoyer sees only more growth for luxury brands.
Helping the city prosper
In 2001, auto sales made up 20 percent or $3.1 million of Walnut Creek's sales tax revenue. By 2007, around $4.5 million -- 25 percent of the city's sales tax revenue, came from car sales. During the recession that dropped dramatically, but things are finally starting to turn around, Gerber said. This year, Walnut Creek is on track for $4 million in sales tax revenue, and Gerber credits that in part to the Maserati dealership.
"It may give us a chance to play auto sales catch-up," he said. "Without adding these two new brands it may have taken us longer to catch up."
The revenue is welcome now, especially with the city's long-term financial projections far from golden. Maserati, Bentley and other luxury brands, in particular, help brand the city as a regional destination, Gerber said.
"If you look at where are you going to buy the luxury brands, it's San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Marin, and then there has been a gap in the East Bay, but Walnut Creek is filling that gap," Gerber said.
It's also important for Walnut Creek's own residents. The city's median household income is relatively low at $83,419 a year; Orinda and Blackhawk, for example, each boast yearly household incomes at $162,000, according to new numbers from the state Department of Finance.
Biundo says most of his Maserati buyers live in Lamorinda and Blackhawk, as well as Walnut Creek, Danville and Alamo -- with some customers from Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
The golden road to success
The dealership already has been named the No. 1 Maserati seller in Northern California. As of last week, it had sold 65 new Maseratis, Biundo said.
In his showroom recently -- a shiny white Bentley to his left, a charcoal gray Maserati at his right -- Biundo indicated there may be more to come.
"I would say there is an opportunity for us to bring other luxury brands to this market," he said smiling, not ready to give up the gold on what might be cruising down Walnut Creek streets next.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.