Few can appreciate the recent upheaval in this city's banking community as well as Dennis Rohrig, a security officer in the old San Diego Trust and Savings building.

In the five years that Mr. Rohrig has manned his post, the 107-year-old building has had four different owners.

It's last one, Home Savings of America, put the building up for sale two months ago and it now sits empty.

"This is the way banking used to be," said Mr. Rohrig, gazing around at the chandeliers, the marble floor, and the 17 teller windows with metal bars.

For better or worse, banking in San Diego will never be that way again. Like few other major cities in the country, San Diego illustrates the effects of rampant consolidation and, perhaps more important, what can happen when all of a city's large locally based financial institutions disappear.

Today, though San Diego is the nation's sixth-largest city, with nearly 1.2 million people, the largest locally based bank or thrift is $600 million-asset Grossmont Bank.

As recently as five years ago, San Diego was the hub of three thrifts with at least $12 billion of assets. The three - Homefed Savings and Loan, Great American Bank, and Imperial Savings - all failed during the early 1990s.

"Not only are we not a headquarters city, but we're a branch city whose branches are closing," said Brian Butler, a local public relations consultant.

Whether or not this development matters depends on whom you ask.

The big out-of-towners that now dominate the market - such as Wells Fargo & Co., BankAmerica Corp., Great Western Bank, Union Bank of California, Glendale Federal Bank, and Home Savings - assert that where a bank is based is irrelevant.

"Today, more than ever, I believe that where a company is headquartered matters less than what it contributes to the community," said Douglas F. Sawyer, the southeastern California regional manager for BankAmerica.

Mr. Sawyer said that the plethora of abandoned bank buildings downtown should not be viewed as indicative of the city's banking climate.

"The only issue there is your commercial vacancy rate, which is not significantly different than any other city," he said.

Scott Andrews, a Wells Fargo senior vice president, said San Diego customers have never been better served, mainly through its in-store branches and automated teller machines - 224 locations in all.

"I don't think there is a significant impact from the fact that there is no headquarters here," he said. "We serve on all the same boards and do all the things that San Diego Trust did in its day."

For the banks, the market turbulence of recent years is good news - it means opportunity.

More than 30% of the city's deposits used to be held by Homefed and Great American - until they went under. Wells Fargo and BankAmerica, among others, raced in to pick up the pieces, now controlling about 36% of the market.

"All this shifting around in the marketplace just throws a lot of stuff up for grabs," said Ronald H. Kendrick, executive vice president in charge of the San Diego operations of Union Bank of California, which is owned by Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd.

And with the local economy finally emerging in recent quarters from the prolonged California recession - by virtue of growth in its technology, trade, and tourism sectors - bank competition will likely only heat up, analysts said.

But while San Diego is well banked, local leaders interviewed - in the arts, charitable organizations, and the business community - think the city has still lost something.

"I think every single cultural organization in this town has felt the effect (of the loss of local banks) to a major degree," said George S. Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, a nonprofit civic organization.

The most striking example may be the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy in May after an unsuccessful fund-raising campaign.

To be sure, a number of factors contributed to its decline, including low ticket sales and poor management. But the lack of any large corporate citizens, namely banks, was also factor.

"It was really very devastating," said Gerard Buckley, who was director of development for the symphony from 1993 to 1994. "They were major contributors to the symphony, and when they were no longer there it became a big challenge for the arts community."

The back page of the symphony's 1994 program lists donors who gave $25,000 or more - none of them were banks. By contrast, the defunct San Diego thrifts each used to give $100,000 annually, Mr. Buckley said.

Executives of all the banks and thrifts doing business in town serve on a variety of local boards. But that, many say, is not the same as having a bank chairman as a director - a chairman such as a Great American's Gordon Luce or Homfed's Kim Fletcher.

"These guys could pick up the phone and twist some arms," said Alan Ziter, executive director of the San Diego Performing Arts League.

Mr. Ziter and others stressed, however, that the big banks now operating here do a commendable job in their philanthropic work. Though the symphony has failed, numerous other cultural institutions, such as the opera and the Globe Theatre, are thriving - thanks in part to the banks, they said.

But the impact of losing a locally headquartered bank is real, others said.

Take BankAmerica's charitable contributions record as an example. Though its donations to the San Diego community have been generous, they pale in comparison with its contributions to its hometown.

From 1986 to 1995, for example, BankAmerica gave $2.7 million in San Diego County. During that same period, the bank gave $20.5 million in San Francisco County, where more than three times as many of its employees are based.

"It's just a matter of there being fewer financial institutions, fewer employees, and so ultimately less dollars to go around," said Joe Passaretti, campaign director for the San Diego United Way, which used to depend on four local institutions for about $1 million annually.

And there's the economic impact.

In the past six years, the number of San Diego bank jobs has fallen by 8,000, or 27%, according to the San Diego mayor's office. Capital, in the form of bank deposits, has also flowed out of the city in that time - by more than $7 billion, or 35%, according to Sheshunoff Information Services.

Acknowledging the severity of the problem, Mayor Susan Golding in October co-hosted with Eugene A. Ludwig, the comptroller of the currency, a public forum on the impact of bank consolidation on the city.

"I think what we learned from the hearing was that San Diego has been hit hard, but that it's not alone," said Maryanne Pintar, the mayor's press secretary. "Other communities around the country are grappling with the same problems, but we will still continue to fight to make sure that we don't take any more hits."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.