One of Florida's largest remaining independent banking companies may be on the block.

Republic Bancshares of St. Petersburg said Thursday that its board has hired an unnamed investment banker to "assist in evaluating alternatives regarding the company's future strategy." Options could include a public offering or a merger with another bank company.

The announcement came after a report Thursday in the St. Petersburg Times that said the company could be put up for sale.

Republic Bancshares is the second-largest commercial bank in Florida. Republic, parent of a $2.3 billion-asset bank with 67 branches, has had troubles of late.

Four weeks ago, the company announced a restructuring that included shuttering its troubled mortgage banking unit and eliminating 340 jobs. Republic said in November that it would lose about $4 million in 1998.

"Any time a company is in a situation like ours, it begs the question, 'Where do you go from here?'" spokesman Stan R. Blakey said. "This announcement is in the spirit of letting everyone know the board is open to any option."

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