WASHINGTON — Nearly five months after a massive fire destroyed the Uftring Chevrolet dealership, rebuilding has begun at 1860 Washington Road.

With an audience of about 200 looking on, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held Thursday at the site of the new dealership, which could open as early as December.

When the new building opens, the dealership can leave its temporary location a few hundred yards away at 1750 Washington Road in the former Walmart and Tractor Supply Company venue.

"People may think December is very ambitious to get our project done, but I call it confidence and the power of positive thinking," said dealership owner Gary Uftring, who promised that costumers once again will have comfortable chairs to sit in and popcorn to eat while they're waiting for their cars to be serviced in the new location.

River City Construction of East Peoria and P.J. Hoerr of Peoria have formed a new company and will work together in an effort to build the new dealership by the year's end.

Dealership officials said the new building will incorporate Chevrolet's design with many of the former dealership's customer-focused amenities.

The new dealership will be about 42,000 to 43,0000 square feet — including a 1,900-square-foot storm shelter — compared with the former dealership's 41,500-square-foot space. The service department will have 21 bays and the body shop will have 12 paint and body repair bays.

"Everything will be on one floor. We had two floors in the former building. The second floor was 6,500 square feet," said dealership general manager Joe Knapp.

Uftring became emotional during his remarks, especially when he talked about the extra efforts of his 80 employees to get the dealership's temporary location up and running and the support and hard work of his wife, Kay.

"I've turned into a crybaby the last couple months," he said with a laugh. "Nobody was injured because of the fire. And our prayers continue to be answered every day. This place is near and dear to my heart. It's the site of the first dealership our company (Uftring Auto Group) built from scratch."

The former dealership was built in 1986. The location is about a block away from where a tornado tore through Washington in 2013.

Many audience members at the groundbreaking listened to speeches and watched shovels of dirt moved under a tent on an 82-degree morning.

The weather was much different Jan. 5. With temperatures falling below zero and wind chills dipping into double digits below zero, firefighters from 33 area departments fought the blaze at the dealership that broke out during the workday.

"I remember standing in the dealership parking lot with Gary (Uftring) with ice under our feet because of all the water, and him telling me he'll continue to pay his employees during the rebuild," said Washington Mayor Gary Manier. "That says a lot about this man."

The dealership is leasing a portion of a formerly vacant building and the parking lot from Connect Church and A&J Storage and Development. Sales, service, parts and body shop operations have continued there.

Connect Church planned to move into the building this year, but put those plans on hold so the dealership could continue operating.

"We can't say enough about the Rev. Dave Jane and his church and how they've opened their hearts to us," Knapp said.

Jane said a prayer at the groundbreaking. Also in the audience were Uftring employees and managers, Washington city staff, department heads and elected officials, and representatives from the Washington fire and police departments.

"It's been a trying first five months of the year for us," Knapp said. "We want to thank everyone who has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today."

Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.