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Banks, U.S. blamed for business distress

U.S. Sen. Connie Mack came to town Saturday to check the economic health of Florida's West Coast.

The diagnosis? Many area businesses have a pulse but suffer a debilitating disease: lack of access to bank loans.

"Credit to the economy is like oxygen to the body," said Mack, a former banker who listened to the woes of small-business borrowers during an informal hearing in Tampa's federal courthouse.

The Florida Republican scheduled the hearing, and another one Saturday afternoon in Miami, to find ways to halt what he called the "downward spiral" fed by tight credit and shrinking business.

The Tampa hearing proved long on frustration and short on solutions. Still, Mack vowed he would continue to look for ways to help Florida's key business: real estate.

At the hearing, Mack heard that Florida's credit crunch is not only prolonging the state's recession; it also is a symptom of a federal bureaucracy that undermines the spirit of taking any risk in business.

Small-business owners such as Bob Suarez, president of Tampa's Suarez Housing Corp., and Ken Emery of Nohl Crest Homes in Palm Harbor stood up from the audience and blamed their companies' troubles on the unwillingness of banks to provide loans for growth.

In turn, First Florida Bank's Bronson Thayer said banks were under their own set of pressures.

He likened the hard line of bank regulators toFlorida's state highway patrol. Speeders who once got tickets for going 60 mph in a 55-mph zone, he said, now are pulled over for going 55.5 mph.

"There is no leeway," Thayer said. Banks have lost much of the flexibility they once had to work with troubled lenders.

Four federal regulators at the hearing defended their actions, arguing their mission was to protect banks and thrifts, whose health still leaves something to be desired.

"We've been beaten up a lot by Congress for this credit issue," said Robert Ahrens, regional regulator of national banks in Atlanta for the comptroller of the currency.

Amid all their differences during the hearing, borrowers, lenders and regulators did agree on one culprit: The federal government's avalanche of business regulation and excessive oversight have hamstrung all of Florida's business.

"The country is destroying its entrepreneurship," said Everette Huskey, owner of Huskey Realty in Longwood, who spoke at the hearing.

Brant Donalson of Burkett's Auto Parts in Fort Myers told Mack that the mergers of banks into bigger and bigger institutions mean loan decisions increasingly are made far from the local borrower.

"Banks have abandoned their roles as anchors of their community in a singular search for profits," he said. "This has the potential of destroying people who are the fabric of the communities."

Even the regulators acknowledged their own loss of flexibility. "Regulators are becoming like bankers," said Jack Ryan, regional director in Atlanta for the Office of Thrift Supervision.

"We have less and less discretion at the regional and local levels."