CHAMPAIGN – Thar's gold in them hills. And thar's banks in these flatlands – lots of 'em.
At the start of the year, 14 banks had 40 offices in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy – and that didn't count credit unions.
That didn't discourage new ones from coming in. Within the past year, banks based in Springfield, Mount Zion and Paris have opened or acquired offices in Champaign County.
Among the banks that spied fertile territory here:
– Prairie State Bank & Trust, concentrated in Springfield but based in Mount Zion, opened a permanent office at 1902 Fox Drive, C, on Nov. 1, having occupied temporary space across the road since July.
Regional President Jeff Jacob called it "kind of a natural progression" for the bank, which has 11 offices in nine cities, including the Springfield, Decatur and Bloomington markets.
"We're primarily a commercial bank at this point," Jacob said. "We do business banking, but we'll be hiring a mortgage lender and doing home lending as well."
Before joining Prairie State Bank, Jacob was a senior vice president in commercial lending at Busey Bank. He cited Champaign-Urbana's "stable economics" and its strategic fit with Prairie State's other major markets as reasons for locating here.
"It's a nice stable economy in terms of employment, but it's also vibrant," said bank Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Vaughn. "University towns have a lot of things going on."
The bank had about $215 million in assets as of Sept. 30.
– Marine Bank, Springfield, plans to open a full-service office just south of the Walgreens store at Champaign's Village at the Crossing next year.
"Right now we're working with architects on the building plan," said Executive Vice President Dave Bramlet, who is based in Springfield. "Shortly after the first of the year, we'll be breaking ground. We're probably looking at a mid- to late summer opening."
The new bank is expected to have about 6,000 square feet, with four drive-up lanes and a drive-up ATM, he said. It's expected to employ about 25.
For now, Marine Bank is operating from 401 Devonshire Drive, C, where it opened a loan production office in March. Nick Stokes is the senior vice president there.
"We wanted to crawl before we walked," Bramlet said. "We wanted to build a loan portfolio of decent size before we moved to the next stage, a full-service branch."
Bramlet said Marine Bank chose Champaign because "the demographics mirror Springfield." The bank emphasizes commercial and residential real estate loans and tries to differentiate itself through service, Bramlet said.
"That's where we've cut our niche in Springfield," he said. The bank has seven offices and had $616 million in assets as of Sept. 30.
– First BancTrust Corp., the holding company for First Bank & Trust of Paris, acquired Rantoul First Bank in April and renamed it First Bank of Rantoul.
Two years earlier, the company entered the Champaign County market by acquiring First Bank of Savoy from its previous owner, First National Bank of Sullivan.
First BancTrust President Terry Howard said about three years ago, his company studied several locales for expansion and identified Savoy as the fastest-growing area within 100 miles of Paris.
Later, the company was exploring opportunities for expansion along Interstate 57 when the Rantoul bank became available, he said. Today the bank has four offices and about $240 million in assets.
Howard said his banks cater to households and small businesses and distinguish themselves through high service, particularly on residential real estate loans.
"We're intrigued by the potential in the area here as it relates to housing," he said.
First BancTrust is also looking at fast-growing communities west of Indianapolis along U.S. 36, he added.
Prairie State, Marine and First BancTrust certainly aren't the first out-of-town lenders to expand in Champaign County. Bloomington-based Heartland Bank & Trust opened an office on Windsor Road in 2001 and followed it up with an office on West Springfield Avenue in 2004.
And in 2002, Forsyth-based Hickory Point Bank & Trust agreed to set up an office on Devonshire Drive in Champaign after efforts to set up a new First National Bank in Champaign fell through.
Several new bank names have cropped up in Champaign County this year, but some have come about as the result of mergers.
Bank One branches adopted the Chase name this fall following last year's merger with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. In February, local Union Planters Bank offices changed their name to Regions Bank following last year's merger with Regions Financial Corp.
One local bank changed its name last year without any change in ownership. BankIllinois adopted the Main Street Bank & Trust name so it could unify its banks – BankIllinois, First National Bank of Decatur and First Trust Bank of Shelbyville – under one identity without geographic limitations.