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A future for branch banking? While so many have closed, our local banks vow to remain viable

September 14, 2023
By Garland Pollard

Despite at least a dozen local bank branch closures in as many years, local “brick-and-mortar” banks are still a part of local banking habits. And they may well be around for the foreseeable future.

“My card got stolen the other day.” said Doug Izzo, director of the Englewood Chamber of Commerce. His first move? Go into a bank branch to sort it out. While the bank ultimately had to resolve the issue online, there was at least a person there to intercede.

“That’s why I like the hometown banks,” said Izzo. “They actually pay attention.”

While numerous branches have closed in the last decade, our area is not a so-called “banking desert,” where branches have mostly disappeared, an issue that has hurt so many rural areas and inner city areas across the U.S.

Banks with brick-and-mortar locations serving Cape Haze and Englewood include Synovus, Wells Fargo & Co., Centennial Bank, Trustco Bank, Fifth Third Bank, Chase Bank, Englewood Bank & Trust (soon to be Crews Bank and Trust), Truist and Regions Bank.

Regions, which has a branch at the corner of McCall and Gasparilla Road, continues to see its local branches as part of its overall customer approach.

“People in Southwest Florida value personal connections with their bankers, appreciating the opportunity to have meaningful conversations and build relationships,” said Earnest Wilks, market executive for Regions in Sarasota, Bradenton, Fort Myers and surrounding areas, including Boca Grande. “We continue to provide that.”

Regions’ strategy is to have a network of full-service branches with local bankers, as well as a digital app and The company calls it a “multi-channel” approach to service to handle simple transactions online, and then offer in-depth conversations in Regions’ branches.

Across Florida, the Birmingham, Ala.-based bank has 250 full-service branches, including 108 branches in our West Florida district, which includes Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties. They have not announced additional openings for Southwest Florida, though they said that they are “are mindful of the growth in this area.”

The biggest operator of branches in our area is Englewood Bank & Trust, with branches including Boca Grande, Placida, Englewood and South Gulf Cove. The company will unify with sister banks Charlotte State Bank and Wauchula State Bank on Sept. 25, 2023 under the Crews Bank & Trust brand.

At the Boca Grande branch of what is Englewood Bank and Trust, soon to be Crews Bank and Trust, are, from left, Tricia Dawe, Branch Manager Gretchen Holla, Renee Maines, Joe Cataldo and Vonda Gardner.                        Photo by Garland

Joe Cataldo, market president for Englewood Bank & Trust, leads the Englewood area for what will become Crews. 

“Community banks are really in a good spot now, compared to some of the bigger institutions,” said Cataldo.

The technology piece is vital for Crews, as the bank customer expects the ease of Amazon but the ability to get someone in person or on the phone if things don’t work, and not have a fee or need an appointment when they need to talk to someone.

“Our average wait time is 11 seconds,” said Brad Ruhmann, marketing director for Crews, when mentioning customer expectations to get a banker on the line. “If I do want to talk to someone, I better be able to get somebody.”

There could be no more personal a touch than the upcoming switchover to the name Crews Bank & Trust. Like Bailey Building and Loan in the James Stewart movie, Englewood Bank, founded in 1988, will now bear the name of the family that has owned it.

Crews intends to continue to add locations in Florida, offering an array of services, including a trust department. Always at the center is a person who can resolve an issue, or do it for them.

“They want answers,” said Cataldo of customers. “They want that local feeling.”

Banks disappearing

While our area is better served with local banks than most, the issue of bank closures is being watched by groups like the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. They report that from 2017-21, nine percent of U.S. bank branches closed, a loss of 7,500 branches. The Coalition believes that one culprit in declining banks, particularly in rural areas, is the consolidation in banks in general.

A full two-thirds of bank companies have disappeared in the U.S. since the early 1980s, declining from nearly 18,000 banking institutions in 1984 to fewer than 5,000 in 2021. Technology is not necessarily a reason for branch closures. The number of bank locations peaked in 2009, almost a half-century after the advent of the ATM, which was expected to make branches obsolete.

There is still a need for local branches, Izzo says, and the demand is there for Englewood Bank & Trust, which is renovating after Hurricane Ian at their branch on McCall. He said that the merger of BB&T and SunTrust into Truist, announced in 2019, has meant a busier Englewood branch, as two sets of customers are now served by one branch.  

The old location of SunTrust on McCall, known for decades for its bright blue glazed-tile roof echoing an Asian temple, is now a pot dispensary. Another closed branch is a game hall.

From a drive-through perspective in Cape Haze, the statistics can be seen through a windshield. Almost a dozen retail bank branches have either closed or been converted into new uses in as many years.

When properly reused, however, they make excellent real estate offices. The newly renovated Michael Saunders office in Englewood overlooking Lemon Bay was a SouthTrust bank, and the bank at the corner of Dearborn and 776 is a Paradise Exclusive Realty office. The latter has their conference table in the old (unlockable) vault.

Branches as advertising

The rate of branch closures has slowed. From Sept. 1, 2022 to Sept. 1, 2023, there have been 153 bank branch closures in Florida, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In the previous year from 2021 to 2022, there were 293 closures.

Additional figures on bank branches in Florida were not available from the Florida Bankers Association, which did not respond to requests for comment by presstime.

This July, Curinos, a research firm for banks, said that the accelerated rate of bank branch closures was 29 percent below the five-year prepandemic average. They attribute part of the slowing to interest rate increases, which have meant less need for cost cutting. The report said that if interest rates do go down, there will be the possibility of more closures, though banks will need to have other ways of marketing, as branches have traditionally been a way to gain new customers.

A 2023 report on retail banking trends by the consultancy Capgemini said that a top trend for banks is to transform the retail bank into an “experience center,” where they can help consumers shift into digital banking.

That shift may come more slowly in our area. Englewood data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 57.5 percent of residents are over 65, and only 84.5 of households have broadband. Retirees expect that banks not only have a person to go to, but they value being able to know them over time. 

“Englewood is unique,” said Izzo.

Tyrone Schinnis  market president for West Florida for Centennial Bank, which operates nine offices from Sarasota down to Marco Island, including branches in Englewood and Venice. The bigger the bank, he said, the harder it gets to stay close to the community.

“All banks offer the same stuff; it’s the personal relationship that’s different,” said Schinn.

One of the biggest factors challenging smaller regional banks is compliance costs, Schinn said, which in some cases have grown from $100,000 to $1 million a year.

While Centennial offers an array of services in addition to consumer accounts, commercial lending is critical. Direct deposit, he reminds us, made the “super busy Friday” mostly disappear, for instance. The advent of internet-only banks, which attract many customers betwee the ages of 20 and 40, means that these customers are not always seeking out local banks.

“We’ve become such a convenience society that we don’t look past what we are doing,” said Schinn.

The Englewood Chamber uses Centennial Bank and Englewood Bank and Trust as it banks. Chamber Director Doug Izzo is grateful that our area, with its small-town feel, makes it “just so much easier to get things done.”