Scuttlebiz: Local banks vying to be top dog

Sit still long enough and you might be able to feel the seismic shift going on in Augusta’s banking industry.

 

The tremors have been growing since last spring when the area’s No. 1 community bank, Georgia Bank & Trust – an institution that for decades prided itself on local ownership – announced it would sell out to Columbia, S.C.-based South State Bank.

The vibrations you feel are the market’s other banks stepping up to take GB&T’s place as the local financial services industry’s top dog.

Take Aiken, S.C.’s Security Federal Bank, for example. It’s hiring of longtime local banker Phil Wahl last week sent a message that its sights are set on Richmond County – the metro area’s economic, political and cultural epicenter.

The bank already has a commanding presence on the South Carolina side of the market and has dipped its toes into Augusta’s suburbs with two offices in Columbia County, the newest of which opened this past month in Riverwood Plantation.

When it comes to local banking, assets are much more than what’s on the balance sheet. It’s an institution’s people and its “sphere of influence” that are most valuable, which is precisely why Security Federal scooped up Wahl, an Augusta native with a 30-year career and enough seats on local boards and committees to fill a school bus.

Influence is something GB&T had in spades, with directors and stakeholders such as Robert Pollard, E.G. Meybohm, Dr. Randy Smith, Larry Prather and John Trulock. The former First Bank of Georgia had it too, with its sphere revolving around such people as Patrick Blanchard, John Lee, Mont Miller, J. Randall Hall and the late Julian Osbon. First Bank was acquired by Atlanta-based State Bank & Trust in 2015.

Yes, most of the faces at the former local banks are the same, but the top shot-callers are now out-of-towners. While that might not mean much to the typical consumer, it carries a lot of weight in a close-knit, mid-sized market like Augusta, where banks are appreciated as much for civic and charitable involvement as they are the convenient branch offices and ATMs.

That’s why locally-based Queensborough National Bank and Trust Co. – just one month after the GB&T-South State merger – made a big splash by stepping up to be the presenting sponsor of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting in February. Underwriting Augusta’s biggest business event, which was attended by nearly every banker in town, was its way of saying: We’re local and we’re here to stay.

Queensborough, which recently passed the $1-billion asset mark, is in expansion mode, much like Security Federal. This past week it cut the ribbon on its newest office, its Wealth Management Center in west Augusta, which not only will provide financial planning, retirement and trust services, but will run outreach programs to help credit poor consumers better manage their money and get the 20 percent of Americans without a bank account away from check-cashing businesses and payday lenders.

The office on George C. Wilson Drive will be managed, by the way, by Dagan Sharpe, who Queensborough hired away from Wells Fargo – the biggest of Augusta’s big banks.

Local community banks and credit unions certainly can’t do everything the big banks can; that’s why big banks still exist. But what they can do, they tend to do well and nimbly. For example, it took Queensborough’s loan committee only five days to say yes to extending a $6 million line of credit to the Miller Theater.

How long would that have taken out-of-town decision makers? It would probably would have taken at least a day or two to explain what the theater is and how it’s soon to become the anchor for Broad Street’s theater district.

Any way you slice it, local banks are vying to fill the vacuum created by GB&T-South State and – to a lesser extent – the First Bank-State Bank mergers. Augusta’s financial industry hasn’t seen brand positioning of this magnitude since First Union acquired the granddaddy of Augusta-based institutions, the Georgia Railroad Bank, 30 years ago.

Good-natured banking rivalry is ultimately good for the community. To borrow a well-worn advertising slogan, “When banks compete, you win.”

 

SUB WARFARE: Competition appears to be the culprit behind the closure of the Which Wich restaurant on Walton Way near the medical district. The custom-crafted sandwich and salad shop, co-located with a Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of Walton Way and Emmett Street, opened just two years ago.

Co-owner Peter Patel told me this past week that the eatery’s evening traffic simply wasn’t enough to sustain the restaurant, which also faced heavy competition from other sandwich chains in the medical district, including Firehouse Subs and two Subway locations. That’s not to mention the Zaxby’s right next door as well as a KFC, Arby’s, Cook Out, Checkers, Krystal and McDonald’s in a four-block radius.

You may recall the fairly recent closings of the Walton Way Burger King and the Stanleo’s sub shop, both of which were on Walton Way.

It appears the influx of undergrads to Augusta University’s Health Sciences Campus hasn’t yet caused business to boom in the medical district.

Patel’s other Which Wich franchises on Wheeler Road in west Augusta and on Washington Road in Evans are unaffected by the closure. There’s now a sign on the front of the building announcing an A Town Wings coming soon.

 

SPEAKING OF CHICKEN: The Bojangles restaurant at 1457 Walton Way, just down the street from the former Wich Wich, is due to get a face-lift. Bids went out this past week on a renovation for the 3,000-square-foot chicken-and-biscuits joint that city records show was built in 1986.

 

GREENER PASTURES: Directly across the street from Bojangles, at 1454 Walton Way, is Kim’s Donuts. It moved last year from its previous location in Columbia County at The Shoppes at Blue Ridge, a strip mall on Evans to Locks Road, to the spot previously occupied by Kitchen 1454.

As the story goes, the doughnut shop’s former landlord in Evans wanted Kim’s out so he could offer the space to a buddy interested in developing his own eatery there .

But in what appeared to be a divine act of karmic comeuppance, the business promptly folded within weeks. The doughnut shop, meanwhile, appears to have become even more profitable in its new downtown spot.

The suburban strip mall space is now occupied by a new restaurant that hopefully will last longer than the .

Moral of the story: Tis wiser to rent to a steadfast stranger than an iffy friend.

 

PROVEN TRACK RECORD: One business with a lengthy history – 90 years to be exact – is Turner Padget Graham & Laney, a Columbia, S.C.-based law firm. It announced last week it chose Augusta’s Wells Fargo building as the site of its sixth office and first expansion into Georgia.

One of the four attorneys in the office is no stranger to Augusta: Bettis C. Rainsford Jr., the son of Edgefield real estate and textile magnate Bettis Rainsford.

The younger Rainsford, who primarily focuses on product liability cases and general business litigation, said in a statement that Augusta’s “tremendous growth” and the “increasing significance” of the Augusta-Aiken metro area was the motivation for opening the office.

Joining him in Suite 401 will be attorneys Wayne Byrd, Mike Roberts and Jennifer Stone.

 

CRANES OVER AUGUSTA: Eddie Butler of Butler Automotive recently mentioned during one of my all-too-frequent visits to his shop (my cars are high mileage, i.e. “paid for”) that there are more cranes in downtown Nashville, Tenn., than Austin, San Francisco and even New York.

I looked it up and, sure enough, high rises are going up everywhere in the Music City. It made me think that cranes ought to be to be a more common sight in downtown Augusta as several mid-rise construction projects gear up, including DTJR LLC’s Hyatt House hotel on Broad Street, the Augusta Riverfront LLC-affiliated hotel on Ninth Street, the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on the Augusta University Riverfront Campus and the Baseball Village (aka Project Jackson) mixed-use project on North Augusta’s riverfront.

There could be others, too, but those alone should be enough to make the crane rental folks salivate.

 

BLUE CRANE DOWN: As if construction at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 needed any more trouble, the massive crane used to move the several-hundred-ton pieces of equipment has broke down.

The “heavy lift derrick,” whose 560-foot-tall boom is visible from The Pinnacle Club in downtown Augusta on a clear day, apparently needs a replacement part. Given that the crane is somewhat of a unicorn – it’s one of only a few machines on the planet capable of lifting the equivalent of five 747 jets across three football fields – it’s not like parts can be ordered at the nearest NAPA.

 

VOGTLE WOES: Construction obviously hasn’t gone as planned at the site. The first of Vogtle’s two new reactors were supposed to start operating last year, and the second was planned to come on line this year.

The delays and cost overruns, of course, are a major reason the main contractor, Westinghouse Electric Co., filed for bankruptcy in March. The company’s owner, Japan’s Toshiba Corp., might even do the same. Both outfits are building the two reactors at SCANA’s V.C. Summer plant north of Columbia, S.C.

In addition to imperiling the paychecks of Vogtle’s nearly 6,000 construction workers – and sticking Georgia electricity consumers with higher bills – there’s the matter of vendors not getting paid. Roughly 30 large companies have asked Westinghouse to return $35 million worth of steel, pipes, cable and other components.

But there’s also numerous small suppliers that have been left hanging, such as Augusta’s Eagle Veteran Services LLC, a home-based industrial supply business run by former Augusta Mayor Bob Young. The former politician and newscaster acknowledged he’s “on the hook for about $1,800” in invoices for the Jenkinsville project.

“But that’s peanuts compared to many others,” he said.

 

MORE ON BOB: Mr. Young is quite the entrepreneur. Did you know he owns the rights to Augusta’s most famous dive bar: Squeaky’s Tip-Top? He picked up the trademark a couple years ago and is now marketing t-shirts for the Summerville-area landmark via his Eagle Veteran Services distributorship.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com

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