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The faces are the same, but bank's name is new

BROOKSVILLE — Bree Tormey got a shock over the weekend when she logged on to check her bank account. Cortez Community Bank, Tormey's bank for the last year and a half, was no more.

The worry started to well up until the 33-year-old respiratory therapist from Brooksville read the online notice posted where her old bank's website used to be. Cortez had been bought and was now called Florida Community Bank, but little else would change.

"But I had to come in and verify," Tormey said Monday morning, clutching some cash on her way out of the bank's Brooksville branch.

She could have cashed her check used the drive-through, but she opted to go inside. She found the same clean, sunlit space and friendly workers who had always been there. The only difference: an official from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., there to answer questions about the transaction.

State regulators closed the troubled bank Friday. Premier American Bank of Miami bought the operations, including $61 million in deposits. Florida Community Bank, a division of Premier, has 37 branches statewide.

By Saturday, the signs in front of the two Cortez Community branches — the other is in Spring Hill — had been covered with white placards featuring the Florida Community Bank logo and its motto: "Stronger than Ever."

Reached Monday, former Cortez president Don Page said he and other board members have been advised by attorneys not to comment.

Board chairman Thomas Hogan Jr., a Brooksville lawyer who was among the bank's founding board members, did not return a message left at his office. The other eight board members declined to comment, did not return calls or could not be reached.

Founded in 2004 by some of Hernando County's most prominent residents, Cortez was laid low by the collapse of the housing industry and the ensuing recession. One of the biggest problems: Borrowers had trouble making payments on commercial loans that funded the construction of subdivisions.

"I know everyone's tired of hearing about the housing bubble, but this is just another casualty of that," said Caroline Jervey of Bauer Financial Inc. in Coral Gables. Bauer uses federal regulatory data to rate banks.

The value of a healthy bank's delinquent loans should be less than 2 percent of its total assets. At the end of 2010, delinquent loans accounted for nearly 25 percent of Cortez's $71 million in assets, she said.

"They were just losing a ton of money, quarter after quarter, for the size bank they were," Jervey said.

Under the FDIC's supervision since April 2010, Cortez tried to find investors to infuse much-needed capital. A deal in the works to sell majority ownership to a South Florida investment firm fell through earlier this year.

Premier was founded in 2009 to scarf up struggling Florida banks using the capital of its parent company, Bond Street Holdings Inc., a private equity firm formed by a group of former banking executives, regulators and investors from New York City.

Also announced Friday was Premier's purchase of Winter Park-based First National Bank of Central Florida. The moves are part of the company's business plan to build a "Florida-focused, Florida-based" banking company, said Kent Ellert, president and chief operating officer.

The company retained more than 90 percent of the two banks' employees, he said. Between the two former Cortez branches, 16 workers are still on the payroll.

The Deposit Insurance Fund will cover about $18.6 million in Cortez losses. The bank is required by law to notify customers before changing rates or fees.

The assurance that little will change makes loyal customers like Brooksville resident Gene Camp happy. "The people are friendly," said Camp, 54. "It's like a family."

The purchase is good news for employees and customers, said Ken Thomas, a Miami-based independent bank consultant and economist. Without a buyer, he said, the banks would have closed.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

The faces are the same, but bank's name is new 05/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 9:36pm]
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