A decade ago, when Houston still had several $1 billion-plus local banks - and Walter Johnson ran one of them - he could raise $600,000 from the banking community in an hour for a civic project.
Times have changed.
"It's hard to raise $50,000 for a project in Houston," said Mr. Johnson, now president of a different bank, $700 million-asset Southwest Bank of Texas, the largest remaining Houston-owned bank. "The out-of-state banks just don't participate."
Rapid bank consolidation has left many of the nation's cities with fewer locally owned banks - and fewer local CEOs committed to civic participation and philanthropy.
The result: Civic and nonprofit groups in some cities get less money from banks and must scramble for funding from other industries and sources.
The headquarters issue is no small one. It reportedly was a deal-breaker in the recent demise of a proposed merger between Bank of Boston Corp. and CoreStates Financial Corp., and a critical negotiating point in the First Chicago Corp.-NBD Bancorp union announced last month.
But in cities where bank headquarters have disappeared, the door has opened for community bankers to step in and fill some of vacuum left by merged-away banks.
"There's no question about the fact that when the major bank is acquired and the head office moves elsewhere, that affects the community the headquarters was in," said James E. Gilleran, California's former bank commissioner, who now heads $135 million-asset Bank of San Francisco.
"Is it an opportunity for the independent banks?" Mr. Gilleran asked. "There is no question about it. They become more important in the community."
Still, nonprofit and civic organizations feel the pinch from losing some of their biggest contributors when bank decision-makers are no longer based in town.
"It's very difficult for smaller banks to pick up the tab," said John G. Rebelo, president and chief executive of $285 million-asset Peninsula Bank of San Diego.
His community has lost several locally owned banks and thrifts to various causes, including acquisition and failure, leaving no local financial institution over a billion in assets.
"It really did leave for San Diego a very large void for what financial institutions previously had been doing," Mr. Rebelo said. "Whatever San Diego Trust (and Savings Bank, which sold to First Interstate) might have done, that was eight times our size. We get so many requests here we can not even begin to fulfill."
Baltimore's increasing role as a "branch office town" also is likely to hurt support for local groups such as the United Way or arts organizations, said Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of start-up First Mariner Bank.
Out-of-state banks will "allow for a splash at the beginning," he said. But "it will be weaned off at a certain point."
Acquisitions also often bring staff cuts, which can reduce philanthropic contributions from employees overall. United Way has often relied on the financial community and especially banks, which in many cases encourage employees to automatically deduct contributions from their paychecks.
Michael S. Maurer, chairman of the new National Bank of Indianapolis, also has led the city's United Way campaign in recent years. "Many jobs were lost," he said. "As a result, United Way contributions went down."
Indianapolis' three largest banks all have been snapped up in recent years by regionals from Ohio and Michigan.
However, Michael Bisesi, senior vice president of United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast in Houston said that although fewer individuals are employed overall in his area's banks after various mergers, per capita giving has increased. "The United Way is well known enough and regarded that they're willing to help us," Mr. Bisesi said.
Consolidation also means that CEOs suddenly can be several states away.
"One could reason that the civic interest of those who control the banks rests in their own communities," said William E. McWhirter, president and chief executive of $420 million-asset Peoples Bank & Trust Co., Indianapolis. In his case, "They're much more involved in Cleveland and Detroit than Indianapolis."
What's more, formerly high-level executives often leave the bank or the community and new executives may not know it as well.
"In every major city, the community always looked to their bankers and they had strong banks," said Mr. Johnson, who formerly headed up Houston's Allied Bank, a $5 billion bank that sold to California's First Interstate.
"Today that leadership is not there," he said. "The banks no longer have their head offices here. Nobody feels permanent any longer. They never develop that community spirit. Most of them are not born and raised in the city where they're president. It's sad really."
In Baltimore, local executives from out-of-state banks participate in civic activities, but "it's not the same," said Walter Sondheim, a longtime civic activist and senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Mr. Sondheim also noted that in-market mergers can affect funding to organizations. "I think there's some risk that the financial contributions might not be as great as the two banks would have given separately."
That city's Mr. Hale himself sold a failing bank that he had turned around, Baltimore Bancorp, to New Jersey's First Fidelity Bancorp. in 1991, which in turn is merging with North Carolina's First Union Corp.
"I thought that as soon as I left (Bank of Baltimore) I would lose all my horsepower," said Mr. Hale, who this year started a new bank in town. "It's been exactly he opposite. My involvement in the community has expanded. I'm becoming more involved because I want to see that my new bank's name is out there."
The remaining local bankers all will be looked upon more favorably, Mr. Hale said. "I think you'll see them being asked on more committees by the governor or the mayor."
Columbia, S.C., has lost several former CEOs to other cities, including Charlotte, Atlanta, and Winston-Salem, N.C., after mergers, said Bill Pherigo, president of National Bank of South Carolina.
"Their contribution to our market is missed," said Mr. Pherigo, whose own company was acquired by Georgia-based Synovus Financial Corp. this year, though he remains head of the Columbia bank.
"The folks who've come in to replace them are also making a contribution," he said. "But you can't bring in someone and they immediately step into the shoes of their successor."
Another loss for bankers may be the strong political clout the vanished big-bank executives had.
"Some of the institutions that were around, they were a lot bigger," said Mr. Rebelo of San Diego. "The executives were more entrenched in the political scene. I think there probably is a loss from the standpoint (that) they probably had more accessibility to the legislators."
But, as observers remind, cities do not thrive on bankers alone.
Mr. Johnson in Houston expects to raise $12 million for a new project to help the homeless, but mostly from foundations and wealthy individuals rather than the bank contributors of yesteryear.