The bank battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of California small- business owners has gone literary.

BankAmerica Corp. is sponsoring an essay contest for the Golden State small-business customer who can best describe in 200 words or less why the San Francisco bank should give them $25,000.

BankAmerica calls the contest "$25,000 for Your Thoughts." It is part of the bank's effort to distinguish itself from its competitors large and small around the state.

"Banks usually don't give away money," said Janet Garufis, BankAmerica senior vice president and business banking manager. "The sheer uniqueness of this demonstrates to our clients that we mean business."

The grand prize is $25,000, but five runners-up will receive $2,500 each. Only small-businesses that have an existing loan or credit line can enter. The contest runs through June 30.

The essay contest, part of a small-business loan promotion to begin May 1, is one of the latest signs of the frenetic competition in the California market.

In addition to BankAmerica and Wells Fargo & Co., California is home to some of the toughest community banks in the country, the largest Small Business Administration lenders and giant thrifts that have increasingly focused on entrepreneurs.

"I'm going to start writing," joked Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting in New York, who said the contest will help the bank attract attention.

"It also gets the customers thinking about the issue, which is something the bank would want to do," Mr. Wendel said.

To enter the contest, small-business owners in California must have either a loan or credit line, approved under Bank-America's usual credit standards, before June 30.

There are no limits on the size, age, or annual revenue of businesses that enter.

BankAmerica's California competitors were quick to deride the promotion, saying that while it may attract attention it does not signify a long-term commitment to serving small-business owners.

"Most likely small-business owners are more interested in running their business than a high school-like essay contest," said Terry D. Hess, director of business banking for Glendale Federal Bank.

Herbert C. Foster, president and chief executive officer of Civic Bancorp, said the Oakland bank would not use that type of promotion to attract business customers.

"Businesspeople are too busy," Mr. Foster said. "That's more of a retail or even a grade school approach."

In addition to the essay contest's $25,000 first prize , BankAmerica will award $2,500 to each of five second-prize winners picked by a panel of judges.

As part of the promotion, BankAmerica is offering a 50% discount on loan fees and introducing a toll-free telephone number in seven western states for small-business owners to apply for loans.

The bank also increased the credit limit to $100,000 for its simplified loan applications, which do not require tax returns or financial statements.

"It's a creative way to get our customers to give us some feedback," Ms. Garufis said. "We want to learn about their experiences."

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