Community banks are steadily loosening the stranglehold that the nation's big banks have on the small business market, according to a report from Boston-based consultant Aite Group. It's still too early to tell for sure how small-business owners will react to the financial meltdown - will they run to the likes of Bank of America or will they walk down Main Street to their community bank? - but given the results of the Aite report, community bankers should take heart.

Eighty-seven percent of the top 50 banks say they are "finding themselves competing more against community banks for small-business customers than they did three years ago." Furthermore, in a survey of small-business owners, only 36 percent were completely satisfied with the service they received from their "top 50" bank. Nearly half of community bank customers said they were satisfied, higher than any other segment, and one-third of small businesses use a community bank as its primary financial institution.

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