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CUSTOMERS ARE READY; WHERE'S THEIR BRANCH?

Just how hard is it to get a bank branch committed to an economically depressed, largely black neighborhood?

For the Tampa Bay area, Exhibit A has to be the years-long battle to erect the first bank in the core of St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood.

An overly optimistic sign on a vacant 1.5-acre lot at the southwest corner of 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street heralds "SunTrust Now Open.'' But the land behind the sign remains untouched, and the bank is still in talks with developers. Maybe it will break ground by the end of the year.

The history of the project is one of stops and starts.

Two years ago, after extensive research, Bank of America was the odds-on favorite for a Midtown branch.

The bank would not only help anchor a long sought after economic revitalization of the neighborhood, it would mean residents wouldn't be forced to rely on high-interest credit cards or payday loan chain stores.

And because many Midtown residents are dependent on public transportation, it would mean easy access.

After taking office in 2001, Mayor Rick Baker and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis asked Midtown residents to identify their top priorities. Residents asked for a library, a chain grocery store, a full-service post office and a bank.

A library opened in 2002, followed by a post office and, at the same intersection where the bank is proposed, a Sweetbay supermarket.

But in the spring of 2005, the fourth leg of the chair broke when Bank of America pulled out of the deal.

One corner of the intersection belongs in an official census tract designated "low income." That northeast corner is where Bank of America wanted a branch.

But the southwest corner of the intersection falls in a "moderate- income" Census tract. When city leaders decided that corner was more practical for a bank branch site, Bank of America balked, saying it wanted to help, but that it would be easier to justify a branch in a low income tract.

A few months later, the city issued an RFP for a bank branch at the location. SunTrust was the only bank to submit a proposal. At the time, SunTrust officials said the branch should be ready for business in the summer of 2006.

But as of June 2006, the lot, which the city paid $300,000 to assemble and SunTrust paid $500,000 to buy, was still vacant.

Later that month, SunTrust announced that a site plan had been approved for a 3,500-square-foot, three-story, full-service drive-through branch at the site.

"Our customers have been going to extreme distances'' to get to a bank, Roy Binger, SunTrust city president in St. Petersburg, said last year.

But so far, the only sign of a SunTrust bank at the intersection is just that - a sign.

A SunTrust spokeswoman said the project is now scheduled to be complete by the end of this year.

And Deputy Mayor Davis, who oversees economic development in Midtown and once patrolled the area as a police officer, said that while he wished the branch were ready, the project is moving along.

"We work on that every week,'' Davis said Friday. "As we speak, the developer and SunTrust are working on a lease agreement.

"Hopefully, there are no last-minute glitches.''

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