WASHINGTON - A small Georgia commercial bank has won federal regulators' approval to become a thrift.

The Brown Bank in Cobbtown, Ga., has switched to a federal savings bank charter. The Office of Thrift Supervision notified Brown Bank Dec. 29 of its approval.

Dennis D. Allen, president and chief executive officer of the $7.2 million-asset bank, said his bank needed to change charters to grow. State rules prevent Georgia banks from branching outside their home county.

"We can't cross county lines as a commercial bank in Georgia, so that's why we decided to change charters," Mr. Allen said. Brown Bank has saturated the market in Cobbtown, population 350, where it is the only bank.

"It is a matter of survival for us. Our community is an old agricultural community and is dying off, unfortunately," Mr. Allen said. "We were naturally going to die in the same manner."

Although Brown wanted to branch outside its county, Mr. Allen said he does not favor a lifting of the state restriction because Georgia community banks would, "probably get gobbled up and lose their franchise value."

Brown Bank is not the only Georgia commercial bank thinking of changing into a thrift. "I have heard speculation of as many as 15 banks," considering changing their charter, Mr. Allen said.

Some Georgia banks want the branching restriction removed. "There is a lobbying force out there trying to get it lifted," Mr. Allen said. The Georgia Banking Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Brown Bank is not publicly traded. The majority of its 4,000 shares are owned by the Brown family.

While the new charter might make Brown Bank more attractive to a potential purchaser, Mr. Allen said, "The bank is not for sale.

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