Community banks craving a piece of the NationsBank Corp./Barnett Banks Inc. pie are being urged to join forces.

At their annual convention here last week, the Community Bankers of Florida were courted by Hovde Financial Inc., a Washington-based firm interested in leading banks into consortiums to bid on branches that NationsBank will be forced to divest in the merger.

Banker interest in such a consortium was lukewarm last week, with some bankers complaining that prices for divested branches would be too high.

But Jeffrey W. Grady, the trade group's executive director, said that is likely to change as more details become public.

He even hinted that such a consortium might include one lead bank supported by smaller community banks. The group might have to go out of state to find a bank to lead it, he said.

Plans to form a group cannot be made until NationsBank announces what branches it is selling, said Eric D. Hovde, president of Hovde Financial. However, "it is definitely our intention to form a consortium," he said.

On Aug. 29 NationsBank announced plans to acquire Barnett, Florida's largest bank. To meet antitrust requirements, NationsBank is expected to sell $3 billion to $5 billion of deposits. Without such a sale, the combined bank would control almost 30% of deposits statewide and more than 45% in several counties.

NationsBank spokesman Fred Hannon said the bank hopes divestiture deals will be completed by the end of the first quarter. The Charlotte, N.C.- based bank has not worked with a consortium in this type of deal before, but "we are taking all requests and responding to every one of them," Mr. Hannon said.

A consortium is the latest approach taken by community bankers to make sure they have a chance to bid for the branches.

Last month Mr. Grady wrote to the state Attorney General's Office, the Justice Department, the state Banking Department, and the Federal Reserve asking that small banks get a piece of the deposit sale. Mr. Grady said the Attorney General's Office has agreed to meet this month to discuss the request.

But community banks worry that the price-bankers at the convention speculated about a premium of 12% to 15%-would keep them out of the market regardless of the method used to bid.

Some Community Bankers of Florida board members were interested in bidding, one member said, until the subject of price came up.

"Most of the hands came down when price was mentioned," said the board member, who asked not to be identified.

A premium of 12% to 15% would have "a serious negative impact on my bottom line," said William B. Gossett, president of $50 million-asset Liberty National Bank, Longwood, Fla.

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