Gastonia, N.C., a city of about 60,000 on the outskirts of Charlotte, could be the birthplace of the next wave of community banks in the region.

First Gaston Bank of North Carolina, due to open in February, will be the first start-up bank in the state in nearly three years.

It could help to trigger an avalanche of new community banks in the state; the institutions would fill an industry vacuum left behind by big-bank mergers.

"It appears that, if we're successful, there are at least eight other groups in the state who will follow," said Mark Boyd, an organizer of First Gaston. "I think all eight will come forward in 1995."

North Carolina Commissioner of Banks William Graham, who has just approved First Gaston's charter application, said the late 1980s were the last years he had seen so much interest in starting a bank.

"We've had 10 inquiries from viable groups since the first of the year," he said. "And there are undoubtedly other groups talking."

First Gaston, which has nearly completed its stock offering, will receive its final regulatory approvals in the coming months. Alex Hall, the new bank's president, believes the time is right for new community banks.

"We saw the bigger banks getting bigger and felt that there are people who want the personal service of a hometown bank," said Mr. Hall, who previously was a regional president at BB&T Financial Corp., Wilson, N.C.

The merger announced last month between BB&T and Southern National Bank, both of which have branches in Gastonia, has further strengthened Mr. Hall and Mr. Boyd's thinking. The anticipated consolidation of the branches of those two banks should produce more business for First Gaston, Mr. Boyd said.

"We hope that the big ones get bigger," Mr. Boyd said. "Because that always leaves crumbs, and we love the crumbs."

In addition to the growth of big banks, industry experts attribute the renewed enthusiasm for starting a bank to increasing confidence in the economy and to an available pool of talent, resulting from consolidation.

"In this time of consolidation and fragmentation, I think we're going to see that the community bank concept is still viable," said John Howard, president of Equity Research Services Inc., Raleigh. "A lot of this increase in activity is coming from people being displaced."

Just under 20% of First Gaston is owned by Carolina First Bancshares, a holding company in Lincolnton that has two subsidiaries, Lincoln Bank in Lincolnton and Cabarrus Bank in Concord.

Bank officials acknowledged the arrangement is somewhat "unusual," but they added that it made sense for both parties.

For Carolina First, it was a sound investment - giving it a foothold in a start-up situated in the high-growth area surrounding Charlotte.

First Gaston, Mr. Hall said, will benefit from the knowledge and expertise of Carolina First and initially save on some operational costs.

Mr. Hall has one employee at the moment but expects to have 15 to 20 in the two branches the bank projects for its opening this winter.

"I wanted to be closer to where the rubber meets the road," he said, describing his decision to leave BB&T for the opportunity at First Gaston.


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