PITTBURGH - PNC Financial Corp. announced a definitive agreement Tuesday to acquire Gateway Fed Corp., parent of the largest thrift in Cincinnati, for about $59 million.

The thrift, Gateway Federal, would be merged into PNC's Central Trust Co. of Cincinnati.

Gateway Federal has 10 branches in the Cincinnati area, assets of $500 million and deposits of $460 million.

Central Trust Co. had $3.2 billion in assets at midyear, ranking third among Cincinnati-based banks. Ralph S. Michael 3d, president an chief executive officer of Central Gateway would put PNC "in a virtual tie with three other banks" for the local retail market.

The biggest locally owned rivals are principal subsidiaries of Star Banc Corp., Fifth Third Bancorp. and Provident Bancorp.

Gateway would be the latest in a series of in-market mergers through which Pittsburgh-based PNC is expanding in strategically important areas. Thomas H. O'Brien, chairman and CEO, likened the Gateway agreement with the recent acquisition of Sunrise Bank for Savings in northern Kentucky.

Under terms of the deal, PNC would pay $30.05 in cash for each of Gateway's 1,955,000 common shares. That price - $58.7 million - would be in effect if the deal closes before June 30, 1993.

If the closing takes place between July 1 and Sept. 30, the price per share rises to $30.30, or $59.2 million total; if it occurs in the fourth quarter, the price would be $30.60, or $59.8 million.

Gateway's share price shot up $12 by early Tuesday afternoon, to $26.50. PNC was down 25 cents, to $28.50.

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