Local Banking Growth Area Community Banks Expanding during Tough Times

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Gordon, Times-Union business writer

Despite an economy that's running on empty, locally run banks around Northeast Florida are surging ahead at full speed, opening new branches and buying up others. And after more than a year of haggling with financial regulators, even CenterBank, the troubled operation run by local banking executive Raymond Mason Jr. is finally set to open tomorrow.

San Marco-based CenterBank has been pushing back its opening since last year and the much anticipated announcement comes during a busy time in local banking circles: Prosperity Bank, a state-only operation in St. Augustine recently bought out three competing bank branches, and The Jacksonville Bank, based downtown and operating for two years, is also going through a rapid expansion.

Area bankers say one reason for the recent banking boom is that the First Coast has been able to stiff-arm the economic downturn other cities across the country are facing. Also, the recent federal interest rate cuts have generated new customers for lending departments.

"When people start losing money in the stock market," said Gil Pomar, president and chief executive officer of The Jacksonville Bank, "they start to go to banks, so they can get a guaranteed return."

Banks like Pomar's and Prosperity have their work cut out for them too, because the pair of giant national banks in Jacksonville -- First Union and Bank of America -- account for about 75 percent of the banking market. That leaves dozens of credit unions, community banks and other financial institutions fighting to serve the remaining 25 percent.

CenterBank hopes to grab a piece of that market, especially in the small business lending department. The bank opening itself, though, has been the first hurdle. It took longer than most bank openings, industry experts said.

CenterBank was originally supposed to open in 2000 but in August of that year, officials pushed it back to November. In November, however, the bank said it wanted to avoid the Christmas holiday season and instead would open in the first part of 2001.

Then, in January, as the new opening date crept up -- and five months after hiring and training about 20 employees -- it again postponed the debut. And this time it dismissed three-fourths of the staff.

Bank officials refused to elaborate on what caused that delay, although at that time the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is one of three agencies to approve a bank opening, hadn't yet approved the operation.

The new plan now calls for CenterBank to open for business tomorrow, and have a grand opening celebration the week of Sept. 3.

As far as what took so long in the first place -- bankers and regulators said the bureaucratic process to open a bank normally takes about six months -- CenterBank executives have been keeping silent.

Mason refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. …