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7th largest bank considers moving services to Tampa

National Westminster Bancorp, the U.S. branch of the world's seventh largest financial institution, is planning to move much of its support services operations to either Tampa or Scranton, Pa.

The decision could be announced within a week, Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said Saturday.

Relocation of the East Coast operation of the banking company, known as NatWest, with headquarters in Jersey City, N.J., would mean an estimated 2,000 jobs for the area paying from $7 per hour to "six-figure salaries," according to published reports in the Scranton, Pa., Tribune.

NatWest, with assets of $25-billion, is the U.S. organ of National Westminster Bank, PLC, Great Britain's second largest bank with assets of $280-billion.

Freedman said NatWest representatives and Tampa officials have been discussing the relocation project since 1992. Several of the meetings have taken place in Tallahassee with Gov. Lawton Chiles in attendance, she said.

The mayor acknowledged that the discussions have been kept under wraps because NatWest wanted it that way.

"These companies want to retain confidentiality as long as possible," the mayor said. "They don't want to disrupt their business or their employees' lives."

Freedman declined to comment on whether she thought Tampa had an edge over Scranton. She did say that the proximity of Scranton to other of NatWest's East Coast operations might favor the Pennsylvania community.

The Scranton City Council last week voted $1.9-million in public funds for building renovation if NatWest relocated there. That would be added to a $1-million federal block grant as part of an incentive package.

Freedman said Tampa officials have offered NatWest "several different packages" concerning different locations in the area, but she said no public money or tax incentives were part of the proposed deals. She did not offer specifics.

She said the company "is on a fast track" and estimated that it would begin relocation operations within a month after the announcement.

Scranton Mayor Jim Connors also was playing his cards close to the vest Saturday and refused to say which city he thought had the edge.

"We're just hopeful that this project will take place here," Connors said. "It would be a great move for the corporation, and the jobs would be great for our people." He added that he considered it "a great honor to be mentioned in the same breath with a city like Tampa," which he said is recognized nationwide for its business recruitment efforts.

Jim Apthorp, the former chairman of the Committee of 100, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's economic development arm, would not comment on any negotiations.

"We never talk about the prospects," Apthorp said.

But if the bank chooses Tampa, he said, "it would be one of the largest relocations we have ever seen. It would be a huge benefit."

_ Times staff writer Jackie Ripley contributed to this story.