Main Street and Community Banks: Natural Allies

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Why should Main Street programs be concerned with community banks? They invest in your community, support your local businesses, serve as important stakeholders in the community—and are huge fans of Main Street revitalization. According to the Independent Community Bankers of America, there are more than 7,000 community banks, including commercial banks, thrifts, stock, and mutual saving institutions across the nation in locations ranging from small towns to big-city neighborhoods. These institutions have total assets ranging from less than $10 million to $10 billion or more.

Lending to Small Businesses

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John Dews (right), president and CEO of Citizens Bank in Batesville, Ark., is firmly committed to supporting local merchants through small business loans. Credit: Main Street Arkansas

Even though they consist of just 21 percent of the banking industry by assets, community banks made 58 percent of outstanding bank loans to small businesses in 2011. John Dews, president and CEO of the Citizen’s Bank in Batesville, Arkansas, says it plainly: “Small business lending is the core of community banking, and I have confidence in my local merchants in part because of the local Main Street program’s ability to provide structure and guidance to them.” This focus on small business lending can make local banks big supporters of the efforts of Main Street programs in their own community.

New Main Street businesses often need lots of assistance in business planning, and creating and understanding financial statements and their analysis, says Lisa Dunagan, who is both vice president of US Bank in Clovis, New Mexico, and the president of Main Street Clovis. The small business assistance programs offered by Main Street organizations help new businesses become successful and can grow them into future bankable clients for local lenders.

The technical assistance and market knowledge and analysis that Main Street organizations can provide to current and future businesses also play a critically important role. Main Street retail technical assistance like visual merchandising consultations and façade improvement incentives help businesses attract more customers. Through survey work and market research, Main Street programs can identify the wants and needs of the local community and identify opportunities in the local trade area. Using this information, the Main Street program can then seek out a merchant to fill the recognized need; and this merchant could potentially become a new bank customer. Current and future business owners can benefit from the market data and experiences collected by a Main Street organization.

Feet on the Street

Beyond business planning assistance, merchandising expertise, and local market data, the overall efforts of Main Street programs to raise the visibility and attractiveness of a community is recognized by bankers. Justin Bourgeois of the Community National Bank in Montpelier, Vermont, says “I love that there is an entity obsessed with bringing feet on the street.” His local Main Street program’s efforts to organize monthly and annual events that attract and keep customers coming downtown gives Bourgeois confidence that the businesses he lends to will be successful.

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Looking out over Main Street from his office everyday keeps John Marsh of Bath Savings Institution in touch with activity downtown. Credit: Barbara Gaul, Bath Savings Institution.

John Marsh, senior vice president of Bath Savings Institution in Bath, Maine, has his office on the second floor of the bank building, which is purposefully located in the heart of the Main Street district. This location keeps him in touch with the commercial district and lets him see how things are going. “I can see during the day who’s doing what,” says Marsh, “and when I drive home at night I see how many people are on the streets and which businesses are open.”

Local Main Street programs and a community lender can also establish a formal relationship to collaborate in growing their districts. In Batesville, the Citizens Bank and the Main Street program formed a partnership connected to the bank’s low-interest loan program. The program is designed to stimulate the downtown economy by funding improvements made to properties located within the Main Street district's boundaries. Projects considered for a loan can include interior improvements, such as new flooring, central heat and air, or a new roof. The first step in the loan process is approval of the loan application by the local Main Street design committee.

Mutual Benefits

Main Street organizations can and should reach out to their local community banks to support their revitalization efforts. But instead of applying to a bank’s community foundation for financial support, talk to the marketing and business development people about the audiences they are trying to reach.

At the 2012 National Main Streets Conference in Baltimore, for example, a Main Street director related an experience where an area bank increased its financial support of a façade grant program from $1,500 to $10,000 when bank officials saw that some of the businesses getting assistance were part of the local Hispanic community, an audience the bank was trying to reach. In other cases, local banks may want to be associated with the marketing brand that the Main Street program has developed and nurtured. Local groups can then detail the efforts they are making to help businesses with planning and market surveys, and then create events to bring customers downtown. Once a connection is made, asking for financial support of Main Street efforts that also provide huge tangible benefits to the bank can be very successful.