Because consolidation has left only a handful of small independent banks and thrifts in Columbia, S.C., the state capital, a South Carolina bank holding company is chartering a national bank there.

The few banks left in Columbia can command such a high price that First Bancorp. of Beaufort decided to charter its own.

First Bancorp.'s move isn't typical.

"I don't think you often see existing banks starting up banks; you see new investors starting up banks," said Thomas E. Hitselberger, managing director of Professional Consulting Associates, a bank consulting firm in Timonium, Md. "Usually when they're in the state, you simply open another branch."

The $90 million-asset First Bancorp. considered branching, but opted for a new bank in the hope that it will attract additional investors. "We hope the investors will come from the area of the new bank," said James A. Shuford 3d, president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Shuford said he wants to go after customers who don't want to do business with the megabanks that dominant Columbia. NationsBank Corp., Charlotte, N.C., Wachovia Corp., Winston-Salem, N.C., and BB&T, Greenville, S.C., all have a large presence in the city.

Mr. Shuford said he was attracted to the Columbia market for its major employers including the Fort Jackson Army training ground, University of South Carolina, and the numerous local, state, and federal government offices.

"Because of size limitations, we can't go after the Michelins of the world," he said. "We would certainly be looking for officers, employees, and management."

First Bancorp., which this week notified the Securities and Exchange Commission of its plans, hasn't yet filed an application with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The proposed bank would be run separately from the company's only subsidiary, Beaufort-based FirstBank, which is about 100 miles from Columbia.

Industry consolidation has given birth to a wave of start-ups in South Carolina. Sixteen new banks have opened up in the past 18 months. Organizers are counting on a backlash against big banks to lead to their success.

"Most of the independent banks kind of get grins and smiles on their faces" when larger banks buy local independents, said Kelly Smith, executive director of the Independent Banks of South Carolina. "Depositor numbers pick up rather considerably."

Mr. Smith said he's aware of at least four more banks, besides First Bancorp.'s, in the works.

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