In the wake of big bank mergers in Virginia, a wave of new community banks are staking their claim on the state's markets.

"There is a window of opportunity here," said Esther Hay Smith, who plans to serve as president and chief executive officer of the proposed First Capital Bank. First Capital hopes to be open for business in Richmond in April.

So far this year, four Virginia banks have received charters and two applications are pending, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That follows five charters awarded in 1996, the most in the state since 11 charters were granted in 1988. About 10 other investment groups are working on new banks, according to E.J. Face Jr., Virginia's commissioner of financial institutions.

Analysts said the increased charter activity since 1996 is a response to years of consolidation in the state. This summer's big deals, including North Carolina-based Wachovia Corp. and First Union Corp. snapping up three of the five largest banks in Virginia, have added fuel to the fire, they say.

"Acquisitions have left a lack of community banking in many Virginia markets," said Chip Wittmann, vice president of Wheat First Butcher Singer, Richmond.

Investors are interested in start-ups, Mr. Wittmann said.

"The economics of the new banks are very attractive," he said. "The banking industry has performed so well for so long, I think investors are intrigued by new opportunities."

The success of recent start-ups may be driving this trend as well.

One of last year's new banks, Harbor Bank, Newport News, reported in September that it was profitable after only 15 months. Gordon L. Gentry Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of the $50 million-asset bank, credited its quick growth in part to the marketplace. "I think our growth has a lot to do with the appeal of this type of banking, and the absence of it in our market," he said.

Ms. Smith's First Capital group has secured about $5 million of the $7 million start-up capital it hopes to raise. The bank plans to begin with one branch in Richmond, and to cater to small businesses and individuals.

"Our board includes entrepreneurs who were once start-up businesses," she said. "They remember that when they first started, they turned to small banks because large banks wouldn't touch them. It means a lot to them that there are locally run banks in Richmond."

Another group preparing to file for a charter is Virginia National Bank, which will be based in Charlottesville.

Reid Nagle, president and publisher of SNL Securities and one of the organizers of the bank, said that after Wachovia's takeover of Jefferson Bankshares, there will be no commercial banks and only one thrift based in Charlottesville.

"There is certainly a need," Mr. Nagle said, "and that presents a tremendous opportunity."

Mr. Nagle said he hopes to have Virginia National open for business in May or June.

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