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Business expansion slowed, but banks didn't rest in '02

Mortgage rates at 40-year lows spurred a surge in refinancings and new home loans

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


Pasco County banks, which merged at breakneck speed throughout the 1990s, took a breather from consolidation in 2002.

But they still had plenty of growing pains to deal with.

With mortgage rates at 40-year lows, the banks scrambled to cope with the flurry of mortgage refinancings and new home loans.

"It was our greatest opportunity and our greatest challenge," said Don Bickel, Bank of America senior vice president and regional executive for the Suncoast. He added that the number of refinancings done by Florida Bank of America branches in July and August tripled over the year before. Bank of America had to revamp staffing and expand hours of operation at its loan centers. "It just kept us tremendously busy," Bickel said.

That flurry of activity helped offset sluggish business expansion and commercial lending.

"Business was not quite over the shock of 9/11," said Ed Hancock, senior vice president of commercial lending at Mercantile Bank in Port Richey. He added that people are expecting a turnaround year for the economy.

"There's more borrowing activity toward the end of the year, more people asking questions about real estate. With residential home sales so strong in Pasco, I think the commercial aspect is going to pick up," Hancock said.

Meanwhile, the big banks scurried to cement themselves in the community amid the growing crop of small banks.

Wachovia, the most recent of big bank mergers, and the result of the September 2001 marriage of First Union and Wachovia, made Pasco one of 59 of its "target markets" this year.

The bank brought in a community bank president for Pasco, giving him the local decision-making authority and a budget so that the bank could take more of a leadership role in community causes.

The bank identified Pasco as a target market because of the expansion being sparked by the Suncoast Parkway.

With the wildfire of residential growth and the retailers and health care providers that are following the residents, the bank saw loads of opportunity. In addition to the wealth of new consumer accounts, there would be payroll and lending opportunities for the businesses that move here and employ the people here. There would be opportunities for equipment financing for companies such as hospitals, which often have to make big investments in equipment.

"There's a lot of opportunity here, with midsize companies . . . and for professionals, like doctors," said Larry Starnes, Wachovia's Pasco County president, who is based at Dade City and Port Richey offices. "People seem to be very willing to have someone in charge locally. A lot of people have not had that."

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