Florida's community banks are on a lending spree.

The state's 288 small banks are on pace to increase their loan portfolios by 16% for the year, versus just 4% for larger banks.

"We have a boom going on," said James W. Powell, president of Peoples National Bank of Niceville, a $59 million-asset bank in the state's panhandle.

Why is lending up? Community bankers say 'real estate construction is steady and small businesses aren't afraid to expand.

All this should put the Sunshine State's community bankers in an upbeat mood as they gather this week in Orlando for their annual convention.

"The economy is saying, 'Oh, I can go on and manufacture a few more of these widgets,' "said Joseph H. Williams, president of Marine National Bank of

Jacksonville. What we are seeing. is an optimistic view of the market."

Other bankers are growing by cherry-picking disgruntled business customers from larger institutions. They say the customers are coming to them complaining that they are tired of breaking in new loan officers.

"The predominant new loan growth is being able to pick up loans from the big banks," said Norris Counts, president and chief executive with St. Petersburgbased Marine Bank. "We are up substantially."

Marine is aiming for 25% loan growth and 15% deposit growth this year, Mr. Counts said. Marine recently wooed several small businesses away from a larger competitor, he said.

"I think some of the big guys lost their lending skills;' said Mr. Williams, who was an executive with a big Florida bank that was acquired in 1990. "They have become good at mergers, but not lending."

Other community banks are filling in niches both big and small banks won't touch. Transflorida: a highly profitable bank in Boca Raton, is growing at a 25% clip by. making commercial real estate loans.

"We could have expanded faster than that," said Carl Griswold, president, and chief executive of the $230 million asset bank. "We have grown at some deliberate pace."

Transflorida has 10 branches in the south Florida market and plans to continue to expand. "We feel we are poised to take advantage of growth," Mr. Griswold said.

While loans are perking along, profits, too, are strong, but not as robust as at the 13 banks in the state with assets greater than $2 billion.

Community banks earned $162.5 million for the first three months of the year, which translates into an 1.18% return on average assets. Larger banks earned $310 million for the same period and returned 1.48% on assets.

Transflorida posted a 3.11% ROA, the highest of any community bank in the state. Mr. Griswold said the bank benefited from the sale of a commercial property.

Community bankers are relishing a springtime victory over their bigger brethren on automated teller machine legislation. Big banks lobbied to allow ATM networks to charge outside customers higher fees for using their ATMs. The small banks launched an all-out fight to stop the legislation, saying it would penalize their customers who used ATMs at big banks. At the 1 lth hour, the small banks claimed victory.

"It was a big victory," said Sam Cook, executive director and general counsel for the Community Bankers of Florida, the trade association that represents 181 small banks.

"We felt we just had to stop it," added Mr. Williams, who led the fight. "It was such a vicious battle." Return on Total average assets assets in millions 1 Transflorida Bank, Cooper City 3.11% $216.682 FirstBank of lmmokalee 2.45 50.773 Horizon Bank of Florida, Pensacola 2.39 37.294 LakeState Bank, Land O'Lakes 2.24 24.415 First Central Bank, St. Petersburg 2.12 48.556 United National Bank, Miami 2.08 725.64 7 Hamilton Bank, Miami 2.01 350.508 Surety Bank, De Land 1.94 37.29 9 First National Bank of Santa Rosa, Milton 1.90 223.9910 The First State Bank of Arcadia 1.89 102.3311 The Citizens Bank of Macclenny 1.79 80.4012 Ready Bank of Fort Wagon Beach 1.78 30.1813 Marine Bank, St. Petersburg 1.77 47.4814 Northside Bank of Tampa 1.76 43.1515 Jefferson Bank of Florida, Miami Beach 1.76 325.0316 Union Bank of Florida, Lauderhill 1.74 69.7917 Community National Bank of Bartow 1.70 56.2018 Family Bank of Hallandale 1.70 172.7519 International Bank of Miami 1.64 145.1920 1.64 288.7021 Liberty National Bank, Longwood 1.63 38.1922 Farmers & Merchants Bank Trenton 1.61 34.1423 Industrial National Bank, Tallahassee 1.61 57.8424 Fidelity Bank of Florida, Merritt Island 1.61 37.1525 Peoples National Bank of Niceville 1.59 57.06

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