Bank of Fayetteville is the one that got away.

Since last fall more than a dozen institutions have offered to buy the $175 million-asset bank. After months of soul-searching its board decided remaining independent was worth more than cashing in.

In communities like this one, the bank does more than just take deposits and make loans.

It is looked upon to keep alive local traditions, support area artists, and even to shelter the homeless.

"I believe a community bank has the obligation to do what it can to impact the economic destiny of a town," said John M. Lewis, 57, chairman and chief executive officer.

"The bank is the repository of the liquid wealth of a community. If we can't use that position of power to better the community, we are missing a huge opportunity."

The opportunity was almost lost last September, when Deposit Guaranty Corp., Jackson, Miss., made an unsolicited offer of $31 million, or 2.5 times book value. Founding shareholders would have more than quintupled their investment.

The deal fell through in December, when Deposit Guaranty agreed to be bought by First American Corp. of Nashville. But 15 other suitors emerged.

Rumors of possible deals triggered a flurry of letters to the Northwest Arkansas Times that bemoaned the imminent loss of the bank.

"When I read the papers, it felt like I was reading my own obituary," Mr. Lewis said.

One letter compared the bank with Bailey Building and Loan from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" and predicted the end of a way of life if the bank were sold.

Another was more poetic, calling the bank "the business that guides the city's development in positive ways and whose corporate behavior influences the community like the current in a river."

Though Mr. Lewis would not reveal how much the other suitors offered, the bank's 11-member board decided in late February that no price was high enough to buy the bank's independence.

"It was almost as if we were going to lose a child, and then got it back," said Gary E. Garton, the bank's president.

"We created this thing from zero and have raised it. Now, we have a chance to continue to help it grow."

Like many community banks, Bank of Fayetteville is best judged not by returns to investors but by returns to the towns where they are based, said Jon Johnson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

"In terms of rates, the bank doesn't distinguish itself," Mr. Johnson said. "Its ties to the community are what people identify with, and the reason so many people wanted to keep the bank in town."

"This bank has played an integral part in Fayetteville's recent history," agreed Jim Crider, director of economic development at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce.

"People were concerned with what may happen when changes take place."

Bank of Fayetteville is the lead sponsor of two annual town festivals and contributes to the public schools and the community art center.

Mr. Lewis also played a personal role in building a new baseball stadium for the town's only high school, and recently commissioned a bust of the Cherokee leader Sequoyah to raise awareness that the tribe camped here on its way to Oklahoma.

"I would be scared to see the sheer volume of things we support," said Kent Starr, a board member and owner of Liquor World.

The bank also spearheaded a campaign to find shelter for homeless children in the area. Their number, estimated at 170 four years ago, is put at fewer than 30 now.

"John Lewis is what has made this bank work," said director Don Heckathorn, a local contractor. "He is a very generous person, both at the bank and personally. And the people in this town recognize that."

Mr. Lewis made it known that he would walk away if the bank were sold.

"At our 1995 annual meeting I alerted shareholders that there were a lot of holding companies in the region looking for bank deals," he said. "I told them then that I had worked for a holding company, and that I had been unemployed, and I preferred unemployment."

The thought of losing Mr. Lewis may have been what persuaded the board to reject the offers.

"Ten years ago John could have gone to a bigger bank and might make 10 times the money he makes now," Mr. Starr said. "But he felt he had a purpose here, that there was something we could do for this community."

Mr. Starr said that the board recognized this. "I don't think anyone around here wanted to take him away from that purpose."

Born and educated in Fayetteville, Mr. Lewis returned from Dallas in 1969 to run First National Bank. He remained there until it was sold to a Texas investor in 1984. (Three deals later, First National is now part of NationsBank.)

Soon after the sale Mr. Lewis began organizing Bank of Fayetteville. It opened in 1987 in a building built in 1904 by Mr. Lewis' grandfather to house the family's hardware store.

The bank has grown 20.5% per year on average. Its return on equity in the 12 months leading up to the barrage of bids was 16.33%.

The Fayetteville region is home to three Fortune 500 companies: Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt Transportation Services.

Mr. Lewis is most proud of what the bank has contributed to the quality of life in town.

"I have two granddaughters who live here," he said. "While I have an opportunity to influence this community, I want to take that opportunity. We want to live in a town that people are proud of, where people have a sense of place."

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