Port Matilda to lose bank after 91 years

crosenbl@centredaily.comOctober 11, 2012 

— For 91 years, a bank has stood next to Port Matilda’s main intersection.

That’s about to end.

Citing economic factors, First National Bank plans to close its Port Matilda branch Nov. 9, leaving the town without a bank for the first time since the Woodrow Wilson administration. The bank will transfer accounts to its branch at 1667 N. Atherton St., about 12 miles away.

Port Matilda Mayor Bob Wiser and other customers object. They say the decision will burden residents and businesses, deprive a rural area of a convenient bank and rob the town of a historical anchor.

“They’re taking away something from us,” said Wiser, a lifelong Port Matilda resident whose great-grandfather Harry Woodring started the bank. “It’s not just a bank branch.”

Wiser opened his first account there, back when it was The Community Bank, in 1960. He said he can drive elsewhere, though he’s not happy about it, but older residents who rely on a neighborhood bank might not be able to make longer trips easily or afford the gas. Some lack cars or computers for online banking, he said.

“People who have banked there all their life have been left out in the cold,” Wiser said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

First National will keep a 24-hour ATM at the Port Matilda site for an unspecified time. In addition, it intends to install a company full-service ATM at Lykens Market across the street from the bank site. The ATM will accept deposits and perform account transfers.

Vincent J. Delie Jr., president and CEO of First National Bank Corp., said in an emailed statement that the branch closure came from the company’s “established and ongoing process of evaluating our retail branch network” for effectiveness and efficiency.

“The decision to consolidate a branch is a difficult one, and we complete a very comprehensive analysis before moving forward,” he said. “We consider a number of variables such as market demographics, operating costs, limited revenue due to increased regulation and facility factors, as well as changing customer preferences.”

First National is also closing a State College branch at 460 Westerly Parkway on Nov. 9 because customers are using a Hills Plaza office a mile away more frequently, Delie said.

“Given the current economic and regulatory environment, the operation of select locations has become extremely difficult,” Delie said. “This is an industry-wide phenomenon. The business model is changing, and we are relying on the close proximity of other branches and technology to bridge the gap.”

Delie said First National will offer Port Matilda bank employees positions elsewhere “as they become available through attrition and other growth opportunities.” He did not provide details about the Port Matilda branch’s business or finances.

In a letter to customers, First National said it was closing the bank “to improve the efficiency of our service network and to provide you with improved amenities.” Gary Bailey, a longtime customer who lives in Worth Township outside town, wants more information.

“The bank gave us no reason for shutting it down,” he said.

Neither the letter nor Delie said whether First National plans to sell the building to another bank, find another buyer or keep it vacant. That rankles Wiser, who said First National doesn’t appear to appreciate the bank’s place in local history.

“I think customers deserve an explanation exactly why they would do this to a community,” he said.

Investing in the future

Woodring, a local hotel owner, and other businessmen decided Port Matilda needed a bank.

But first, they needed investors.

They raised $35,000 worth of bank stock, formed a board of directors and found a site occupied by an old blacksmith’s shop. The owners agreed to the sale, provided their house was moved to the back of the lot and a new cellar dug.

With $5,000 of lumber, steel, brick and tile, much of it hauled by Woodring and others from the town train station, The Community Bank was built. Furnishings came from a State College bank.

For its first decade, the pride of Port Matilda also housed the town’s post office, and then briefly afterward, a funeral parlor in the back. Space wasn’t a problem: Until the end of World War II, the bank had only one employee.

But by 1945, the bank’s assets had grown to $256,000, and its staff increased accordingly. At its 50th anniversary, the bank oversaw about 2,000 checking accounts and $8 million in assets. A drive-in window and camera security system had been added, but the original vault remained.

Since then, the bank has occupied a prominent spot, overlooking the town’s sole traffic light. Today, despite different owners after the 1970s, engraved stone near the roof still proclaims it The Community Bank.

Safety issue

Mark Belinda has walked a few yards to his bank for 19 years.

Belinda owns the Port Matilda Hotel & Tavern, across old U.S. Route 220 from the bank. No longer will he be able to deposit daily revenue quickly.

That’s inconvenient but also a little scary, he said. He doesn’t like the prospect of having cash sitting around until it can be taken to a State College area bank.

“You worry about that safety issue big time,” he said.

Claudia Lopez, a manager at Brother’s Pizza & Subs in Port Matilda, will miss the easy deposits and ready source of change.

“For us, it’s going to be a big inconvenience,” she said.

Lopez said the closure may prompt her business to switch banks. Belinda is also considering a change. He wonders if the Interstate 99 bypass, which has thinned traffic through town in recent years, influenced First National executives, perhaps causing them to see a town in decline.

On the contrary, he said, he sees more downtown activity now because it’s safer and easier to get around without trucks.

Gary Bailey said an empty bank, on top of fewer travelers stopping for food and gas, will hurt Port Matilda in the long run.

“It’s going to be another step to being a ghost town,” he said.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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