Though community banks continue to speed onto the information superhighway, few are finding the journey profitable.

Only 16% of community bankers in an American Bankers Association survey said they feel a Web site has produced business that they would not have obtained otherwise. Forty-four percent said their sites have not generated business, and 40% said they do not know.

"People are jumping on the Web just so they can tell people they're at 'www.bank.com,'" said Dave Koto, executive vice president of Brintech Inc., a New Smyrna Beach, Fla., consulting firm. "They haven't even begun to consider the potential benefit of the Internet."

The survey, which was scheduled to be released here Sunday at the ABA's National Conference for Community Banks, found that fewer than 3% of banks said their Web sites are profitable. Roughly 35% said they do not expect their sites ever to make money.

"We look at our page as a source of information," said Deborah Jordan, chief financial officer at $195 million-asset Merrill Merchants Bank in Bangor, Maine. "You are never going to be able to completely measure the impact of something like that."

Mr. Koto said Web sites could lead to profits in just the way automated teller machines have evolved.

"Before surcharging, how many bankers would tell you ATMs were profitable?" he asked. "But as a competitive tool, where would most banks be without them today?"

The Web "is a channel you need to remain competitive," agreed Joe Williams, president and chief executive officer of $90 million-asset American Heritage Bank in El Reno, Okla. "But to say that specific profits will be derived from the site is going to be tough."

Still, undaunted by the lack of profits, community banks continue to flock to the Internet. Of the 748 bankers surveyed by the ABA in its annual look at community bank competitiveness, 42% said they have a Web site-up from 34% last year and almost double the proportion that had sites in 1997.

Some bankers-30%, according to the survey-do believe there is money to be made on-line.

David S. Hickman, chairman and chief executive officer of United Bank and Trust in Tecumseh, Mich., is one such banker. United's site does not pay for itself, he admitted, but he is convinced it will.

"We will be making loans and letting people check their balances on- line," he said. "At some point, we are going to wonder how we ever did it without" a Web page.

Already, the site has produced a tangible benefit for $400 million-asset United. Mr. Hickman said he knows of a couple planning to move to his area who discovered United on the Internet, then came into the bank to open an account as soon as they arrived in town.

"They might have come our way anyway, but who knows?" he said. "As it went, they had their mind made up to bank with us before they got to town."

The ABA survey also covered fee income, funding sources, asset growth, cost control, and branching plans. For example, it found that the deposit crunch plaguing community banks eased in 1998. Only 39% of bankers said deposits trailed loan growth, compared with 59% the year before.

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