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Businesses want loans; regulators lend an ear

Three years and counting, the credit crunch still has a lockjaw hold on many of Tampa Bay's businesses.

That was the word from about a dozen business men and women when four federal bank and thrift regulators asked Thursday whether it's getting any easier to get a bank loan.

The answer was clear:

Home builders still can't get loans to build houses. Some small retailers can't even get an appointment to see a loan officer. And developers looking to buy land are laughed out of most banks.

Bankers insist they have money to lend _ but only if the deal makes sense to them. Sandra Jansky, chief credit officer for SunBank NA in Orlando, summed up the mood of a panel of bankers at the meeting.

"We don't do dirt (land loans). We don't like condos. And we don't like restaurants," she said. "And we can show you the losses in our loan portfolio to justify those feelings."

Here are credit experiences of some business people who spoke Thursday.

Donna Hoppestad, Baskin Robbins, St. Petersburg Beach.

Hoppestad took over the family-run ice-cream business in 1991. In what she thought would be a simple task, she tried to consolidate three loans from three banks into one new loan of less than $100,000.

She talked to 12 banks and got nowhere. Some banks even refused to see her, telling her to mail in her documents for review.

"I was surprised. Nothing prepared me for such rejection," she said. After all, she was not asking for more money, just one loan instead of three.

"Ice cream is an affordable luxury," she said. "The recession usually does not affect us much." Lately, ice cream sales are up and Hoppestad is ready to try again.

Alfred Austin, The Austin Companies, Tampa.

One of Tampa's major real estate developers, Austin described how he is in the midst of a financial nightmare _ courtesy of the federal Resolution Trust Corp.

The RTC, in its role as liquidator of failed savings and loan assets, is selling major office buildings and other properties for pennies on the dollar.

"When you sell properties at very reduced prices, it's very hard for those owners with existing mortgages (based on pre-RTC values) to survive," said Austin.

His recommendation? Freeze RTC's inventory of assets. Take the properties off the market for at last two years to allow real estate values to stabilize.

Federal regulators disagreed. They argued that the quicker the federal government can get rid of its huge block of properties, the quicker the market can recover.

Frances R. Ford, First Federal Savings Bank of New Smyrna.

Ford this year bought the struggling First Federal Savings of Citrus County with plans to keep it on the straight and narrow.

The thrift stopped providing loans for construction, said Ford. Now her thrifts stick almost strictly to vanilla-style home mortgages.

"Regulators are unpredictable on how they view construction loans, so we are not aggressive lenders," said Ford.

Bank regulations must be eased if the credit crunch is to end, she said.

"Those of us who are left are the survivors, the good guys," Ford said. "The Jesse Jameses of the banking industry are long gone."

Mel DePietro, OK 4U Kiddo Inc., Tampa.

DePietro started the upscale children's store in Hyde Park with his wife, and they now have stores in Winter Park, Orlando and Boca Raton.

"Not to beat our head against a wall for a bank loan, we went elsewhere," said DePietro _ a former banker. They asked family and friends to invest.

In 1991, DePietro found some venture capital to help expand his stores (his goal: 20 stores by 1995).

Since then, he has established a $60,000 line of credit with a local bank, just to establish some ties for the future.

"We plan to seek bank financing in late 1993 or 1994," he said, after OK 4U Kiddo can show a few years of running in the black.

Thursday's meeting was arranged by Timothy Ryan, the federal regulator of savings and loans. He is on a tour of the country to gauge the availability of credit.

And while Tampa Bay's assessment appeared bleak, Ryan said it sounded far better than what he heard at his first stop in Los Angeles.

Ryan acknowledged that past efforts by Washington to break the credit crunch have failed, and he made no promises of a quick fix.

But he said the opinions will influence new rules that tell banks and thrifts how and when they can lend _ without incurring the wrath of federal examiners.