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New local bank gets ready for business

Liberty Bank, a new community bank that began forming last summer, will open in early February, backed by $12-million and some of the bay area's most prominent business leaders.

The bank's main branch office, and for now its only one, will be at 1617 Gulf to Bay Blvd. _ currently a vacant lot prized by bank leaders for its busy, central location.

Bank officials hope to open a temporary, modular building on the site by Feb. 7, pending a standard FDIC examination. The construction of a permanent building should be finished by August, said David Vosen, Liberty's president and chief executive.

Although Liberty will join a handful of banks on the small stretch of Gulf to Bay between South Lake Drive and South Keene Avenue, it will be just the second bank in Clearwater that is owned and run locally, filling a niche local bankers said larger banks have a hard time with.

"In general, banking is banking," said Barry Miller, president of Clearwater's other community bank, Old Harbor Bank. "We can just offer some things the bigger banks can't _ atmosphere, friendliness, things like that."

Vosen said that's exactly what his bank plans to do. Liberty will open with 13 employees and will focus mostly on supporting small businesses. Like most other banks, it also will accommodate personal accounts.

Among the bank's board of directors are former U.S. Homes vice chairman Fred Fisher; RCM Corp. CEO Richard Cope; former Dataflex CEO Phil Doganeiro; Dex Imaging CEO and Danka Business Systems co-founder Dan Doyle Sr.; and Tires Plus CEO Larry Morgan.

Vosen said he would eventually like to see the bank grow to perhaps four branches and $300-million in deposits while focusing especially on small businesses.

"Small business is the backbone of our country," he said.

He declined to say how much the bank is investing in its first branch building.

Around Clearwater, at least six community banks have been bought out since 2000, Vosen said, with only Liberty and Old Harbor so far sprouting up to fill the gap. Larger banks often buy out community banks to establish an immediate foothold in a community, but Vosen has said Liberty is set up to encourage local control.

Old Harbor just opened its second branch, in Dunedin, and has plans to open two more in 2005.

Community banking in the area appears to be on the rise. Florida Department of Financial Services records indicate that at least one more community bank is seeking the state's blessing in St. Petersburg, and another opened in southwest Pasco County in the fall.

Although more community banks might soon create more competition, Miller, the Old Harbor president, said he doubted any bank would drastically change its strategy to adjust. "There's plenty of business here in Pinellas County," he said. "There'll be some competition, but it'll be friendly."