Reclaiming a city's water rights from the world's leading aluminum manufacturer and convincing a county board to let a drug store chain revitalize a decrepit historic theater—these aren't typical business initiatives for community banks. But they represent the extreme level of activism some are undertaking to spur prosperity in their communities.
It takes a special kind of vision to see the merit in a bank digging itself into a decades-old quagmire involving the small town of Albermarle, N.C.,the world's leading aluminum producer-Alcoa Inc.-and the Yadkin River. Roger Dick, chief executive of the $515 million-asset Uwharrie Capital Corp. has such a vision.
He's one of the community leaders spearheading the fight for the state to recapture water rights of the Yadkin River from Alcoa, which built four dams on the river to generate electricity at a smelting plant in Badin, N.C., that it closed in 2007.
"A private company can use a public resource as long as the public is the primary beneficiary, but they've shuttered the plant and the jobs are gone," Dick says.
As a community banker, he says leading the charge was a natural fit. Proponents of reclaiming the water rights-and the hydroelectric capacity that comes with it—believe the city can attract new industry with favorable energy rates.
"We established our bank to create an economic engine that takes local wealth and multiplies it into local capital," Dick says. "Being that agent, we see our role in trying to create a new economy based on local resources."
Jesse Torres, president and CEO of the $41 million-asset Pan American Bank in Los Angeles, found similar motivation when faced with a dilemma in his neighborhood: How to revitalize a historic theatre damaged in the 1987 Whittier Earthquake after decades-long plans for an arts center there have never materialized.
He recently helped convince the Los Angeles County Board to allow CVS Pharmacy to open a store in the theatre, which angered those in favor it being used as an arts center. But having a business there, he says, will help the community more than letting the theatre continue to erode.
"It's at a huge intersection, and it's ideally based for thousands of folks," he says. "Plus CVS says they would preserve some of the fine detail of the original architecture."
But his bank's community efforts extend far beyond that. It recently opened the Pan American Bank Technical Assistance Center within the Magnolia Place Family Center, which houses 60 nonprofits in west Los Angeles.
The mission of the bank's center is to bring more unbanked people into the mainstream, and the bulk of the work will be teaching financial literacy to local groups-called "promotores," or promoters—who will, in turn, share what they learn in their churches, schools and community centers.
"We use the groups because in this post-TARP era, banks' credibility is zilch," Torres says. "So if we're going to get our message out there and have people buy into it, then we need to work with those trusted agents in the community."
Pan American is also hoping to entice families to open savings accounts for their children, by offering to deposit the first $5. It has a deal with a local hospital that for every child born, the bank will deposit $5 into a new savings account in the child's name, and the hospital will do the same.
First Independent Bank in Vancouver is also seeking innovative ways to invest in its community. In 2008, the $879 million-asset bank kicked off an initiative that provides technical expertise to area nonprofits and matches their funding. It offers workshops in which its staff tutors nonprofits on how to be financially sustainable. It also works with them on strategic planning, branding and even how to safeguard their donor databases in the event of a disaster.
"We believe that in order to support community organizations, relationship banking is really about giving our clients more than just checking accounts-it's helping them figure out how to do a better job building their entire business so that it's stronger," says Jeanne Firstenburg, president of First Independent.