Union Center National Bank recently opened a branch in my town, Summit, N.J.

Summit can be a tough town for new banks. It has major offices of First Union Corp., PNC Bank Corp., Summit Bancorp, Chase Manhattan Corp., and Hudson City Savings Bank, in addition to smaller banks, thrifts, and finance companies.

But Union Center, one of New Jersey's largest community banks, obviously isn't afraid of a little competition. And if the way it treated the public when it opened is any indication, the $5 billion-asset bank will not be a pushover.

A VIP reception had a spread that would do the wealthiest father of the bride proud. And on the Saturday before opening, the bank had free hot dogs, soda, caricature drawings, balloons, and a chance to win a weekend in New York. To top all that, the stretch limo that will drive the winners was parked outside.

As for services, the bank announced free and low-cost accounts, low borrowing rates, generous hours, and gifts for new accounts.

The one thing missing was an offer to "buy" the unused checks of people moving accounts by trading, say, two new ones for each old one. One of the deterrents to changing banks is having to discard blank checks.

But when I mentioned this to president John Davis, he said he would probably offer check buybacks, too.

The gift for everyone walking in on the first day was also a bright idea: a night-light. So now when I walk around my house in the near-dark, I see Union Center's logo shining at me.

But the question for community bankers is whether such an opening woos new depositors and borrowers.

In my opinion, the entertainment - there was even a grand piano-was not as important as the services and products offered, like the free safe deposit box for half a year to each new depositor.

I was also impressed that the bank cared enough to pull out all the stops-including sending out nearly 20,000 announcements. Most banks never offer anything special for their customers or community. Yet it takes so little to make a splash and build the bank's image.

I remember giving a talk to more than 1,000 people at a bank in Fort Worth. There were no refreshments or souvenirs and no mailed invitations. All the bank did was put up a billboard near the arena that said, "Come see the economist" or something like that.

Another time, in Traverse City, Mich., the bank offered nothing but my talk and jugs of water next to paper cups. The crowd was big anyway.

Of course, there are pitfalls inherent in bank entertaining, including the fear that people not invited will feel slighted. This is why some banks that have economic seminars do not want the press there: They feel the publicity would be offset by the resentment of those not invited.

I recall a peculiar case in which one bank held a luncheon at a restaurant in a neighborhood where it was opening a branch.

The owner was so pleased the bank was paying for an open bar that he delayed serving lunch an hour and kept the bar open all that time. Unfortunately, the bank got an unwanted reputation as a big spender.

All entertainment can do is get people in the door. It is what the bank does afterward that determines whether the splashy opening was worth it. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is a professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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