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Financial firm finds room at the top

Soon a new sign will go up at the top of the Clearwater Tower at 33 N Garden Ave. Maybe it will be blue, maybe it will be green, but whatever the color, it will say "Midland."

The leader of the Midland companies, which have taken over the top floor of the building, knows a lot of people will have questions.

"When we put the sign on the building, people will probably say, "Who the heck are they?' Nobody knows we exist because we really don't do any business in Clearwater," said Robert J. Banks, chairman and chief executive officer.

Midland has been around Clearwater for years, first in the adjacent Barnett Bank tower in 1977. It moved to the Sun Bank building on the south side of Cleveland Street 10 years ago and then to its current digs on the top of the 12-floor Clearwater Tower last month.

Midland consists of a holding company and six operating companies. They provide a number of financial services, but much of what they do is provide debt and equity for affordable housing apartment complexes nationwide. The complex residents earn less than 60 percent of the median income for their area.

For the past three years, privately held Midland has provided about $275-million a year in loans, with 90 percent of the money going for affordable housing. Loans range from $1-million to $22-million.

The next-largest part of its business is financing construction of franchise restaurants.

Midland, which has 87 employees, 73 of them in Clearwater, needed more space and did not like being spread out over two floors of the Sun Bank building. The top floor of the Clearwater Tower became available when efforts to revive the financially ailing Clearwater Club failed last year.

All the restaurant equipment from the private business and social club was removed and the 15,000-square-foot top floor was renovated to make way for Midland's offices.

With the water views and with the Clearwater Tower being the newest of the three tall office buildings downtown, the Midland space is a prime location. "I don't know of any space (downtown) that would be more prestigious," said John F. Gerlach, of Colliers Arnold Commercial Real Estate, which leased the space.

The move means 86 percent of the 105,000-square-foot building is occupied, Gerlach said.

Midland grew out of a company that started in Detroit in the 1940s, specializing in government financing for home mortgages. Banks, who lives in Seminole, started with the company in its branch office in St. Petersburg in 1973. When the company moved its headquarters to Clearwater in 1977, he moved with it.

Banks acquired a minority interest in the company in 1981, and then, with partners Keith J. Gloeckl and Ray F. Mathis, purchased the whole company in 1988.

Midland has not done any loans for affordable housing in Clearwater only because there is not much affordable housing here, Banks said. The company also has offices in Detroit, Dallas and Sacramento, Calif.

Midland considered moving its headquarters to Tampa but decided to stay in Clearwater because its officers like the beautiful views, the informality of the area and the lack of traffic jams.

"We're paying a lot to be on the top floor but our philosophy is that none of us are getting out of this alive," he said. "It's important for our image to have nice space."

That philosophy is carried over into the casual dress code that has become a year-round policy for all the workers: no suits and ties unless there is a special reason.

Banks said Midland specializes in dealing with government incentives to build affordable housing. He said Midland can cut red tape and make the loan process easier and faster than big commercial banks.

Banks said Midland has changed its strategies over the years to address changes in the economy and in government programs. When the prime interest rate soared in 1979 and 1980 and banks offered floating interest rates, Midland focused on pension funds as a source of fixed-rate loans.

In the future, Midland may focus more on financing housing for seniors and conventional apartments.

"If we were a one-trick pony," Banks said, "we'd be gone."

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