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Banks put their money on busy street corners

Banks can behave like finicky cats. The latter snub all but the cleanest litter boxes. The former settle for nothing less than the best corner locations for their branches.

Take JPMorgan Chase.

Unhappy with a spot at Columbus Drive and Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, Chase decided that the corner of Spruce Street would be better. The relocation cost more than $6 million — for a move of just a third of a mile.

Over on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, Chase found inadequate a location that lacked a drive-through and was difficult to access. It built a replacement branch from scratch three doors down.

"Our goal is to have the most convenient, most visual banks," said Jeremy Young, who oversees Chase's retail branches in west Florida. "We pick the best corners. We don't sacrifice location."

If it seems like banks are sprouting up on major intersections, that's because they are. Chase, along with USAmeriBank, HomeBanc, PNC, BankUnited and others, are on a construction tear, one of the few commercial segments turning dirt in the Tampa Bay area.

Banks did more than their share to touch off the recession. But now, they seem to be leading the recovery, said Hal Colbert, managing director of retail services for Colliers International Tampa Bay, a commercial real estate brokerage. And instead of moving into shopping centers, as they did in the past, they are looking to sites on main streets close to their customer base.

"With the lack of new shopping centers under construction, in order to grow they have to go to infill markets," he said.

In some cases that means opening branches in locations once considered prime for retail, like the spot next to the new Wawa in South Tampa where a HomeBanc is rising. Or in former retail store sites that didn't survive the recession. Even with the rise of digital banking, people still want brick-and-mortar branches near their home or job.

Banks keep daytime hours, don't make noise and generate relatively little traffic. By the same token, the arrival of a new branch does little to excite nearby residents. Anneliese Meier was underwhelmed when a Chase branch took over a former Blockbuster store in Tampa at Howard and Swann avenues not far from her home. She would have preferred a bistro or boutique.

"We just bailed these banks out and now they are flush with money again," she said. "What happens if these branches fail or merge? We'll have another empty spot, and a bank always looks like a bank. Institutional."

Not always.

USAmeriBank went for an anything-but-ordinary look when it opened a branch in mid April in the former Continental Jewelry store, across from WestShore Plaza. Bank officials had been eying the location for more than two years and finally made a deal to buy it for $3.35 million.

"We like the area. The visibility is huge," said T. Gene Evans, senior vice president of retail banking for USAmeriBank. "A lot of our customers had been asking us to come there. We have branches in downtown and near Plant High School, so this really expands our reach in South Tampa."

The bank has 11 branches in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and its operations center in Clearwater. It originally wanted just half of the 8,400-square-foot building along West Shore Boulevard. But when Continental said it was selling the entire site, the bank decided to move its professional and executive division there, along with a new branch.

What resulted is a showcase building with lots of glass, modern furnishings (the conference room table tops are made of zinc) and artistic elements inspired by dollar bills and coins. Branch manager Joseph Riggs said they wanted a "metro'' feel that makes a statement and complements the surrounding West Shore business district. Some of his customers work within walking distance.

Before the financial crunch, banks competed primarily with drugstores, followed by casual dining restaurants and fast-food places for coveted corner spots, Colbert said. But when the economy collapsed, construction stalled and demand for those locations dropped.

Many banks that recovered with help from federal bailout money and record-low borrowing rates now have the money to expand. Last week, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. announced U.S. banks earned a record $40 billion in the first quarter of this year, thanks to greater income from fees and fewer losses from loans.

Banks will generally pay more for a site than the current competition, namely dollar stores and discount grocers, Colbert said. Land owners selling or leasing their property figure a bank is a good, stable bet. They don't skimp on the construction.

Chase actively sought out the ABC Fine Wine & Spirits site at Dale Mabry and Spruce when looking to relocate its branch tucked away in an old strip center near Kmart up the street. It preferred a standalone building closer to the Whole Foods, Target and Best Buy stores directly on Dale Mabry. Instead of one drive-through lane, it could have four.

"It's all about where do our customers want to shop? Where are those daily needs?" said Young, Chase's retail banking manager. "We have the ability to target sites. We will go and speak to people and ask."

Chase had just a handful of branches in the Tampa Bay area until late 2008, when it acquired Washington Mutual. Since 2010, it has opened 35 branches in west Florida and plans another 14 next year. It wants a strong presence in Tampa, where it has 5,500 employees and which was the site of its annual shareholders meeting last month. It also likes having branches for its Midwest customers who winter in Florida.

The local bullishness of banks mirrors national trends. In the first quarter of the year, the number of banks on the FDIC's "problem'' list fell to 612 from 651 as of Dec. 31. And so far this year, only 13 banks have failed. That follows 51 closures last year, 92 in 2011 and 157 in 2010.

In the six weeks since USAmeriBank debuted its West Shore branch, it has brought in nearly $20 million in deposits.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Banks put their money on busy street corners 06/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 7:04pm]
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