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Palmerton bank adjusting to changing needs of community

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A lot has changed in Palmerton in the past 100 years. The New Jersey Zinc Co., once the largest producer of zinc in the United States and the town's largest employer, is gone. Instead of products, most of the area's industries now deliver information and services. The town's population is shrinking and people drive farther to their jobs.

What hasn't changed is how First National Bank of Palmerton, which turned 100 years old in October, continues to serve its community.

The bank got its charter in 1907, 10 years before Palmerton incorporated as a borough. The town had a late start, developing around the zinc company that in 1898 located its smelting operation on a flat plain by the Lehigh River, close to the railroads that brought in zinc ore from New Jersey and coal from Pennsylvania's anthracite region. The town was named after the company's president at the time, Stephen S. Palmer.

At its peak, the zinc company once employed 1,500, but its huge brick processing plants are gone. Acres of brownfields with a for-sale sign are all that remain along the river, and the town is a Superfund site, due to the heavy metal byproducts of zinc processing.

The zinc company's successor, Horsehead Corp., employs about 150 people in Palmerton to reclaim zinc from furnace dust. The name reflects an early logo of the original company, the horse head on a 1 cent coin minted in the colony of New Jersey.Gone, too, are many of Palmerton's factories that made cigars and silk and bottled Coca Cola. Instead, Pencor, a media company that is the county's largest employer, is based in Palmerton. It owns the Times News newspaper, Palmerton Telephone, PenTeleData Internet services, and Blue Ridge Communications cable television."Palmerton has ceased to be a company town, and has become more of a bedroom/service community, and started to grow in a totally different direction," said Peter Kern, president of the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce, and also chairman of the board of the Carbon County Chamber of Commerce."First National Bank of Palmerton anticipated this growth 20 years before it started," he said. "It was really one of the first area banks to reach out to what we call the western part of the Poconos, recognizing that there was going to be substantial growth in the Monroe, Carbon, Northampton and Lehigh counties area."When it opened its first branch in Gilbert in 1962, the surrounding townships were home to about 5,000 people; now there are 35,000.Today, the bank holds more than a half-billion dollars in assets.The bank's origins occurred under more humble circumstances.The bank first opened its doors on Jan. 6, 1908, at 340 Delaware Ave., a building now occupied by Bob's Floral and a popular stop for buying lottery tickets. The old bank vault, woodwork and drawers with change cups still remain.By 1916, the bank applied to double its capitalization from $25,000 to $50,000. Buyers gobbled up the new stock, and the bank again applied to double its capitalization to $100,000. The board also proposed a new bank building, and in 1927, with holdings of more than $2 million, the bank moved to Fourth Street and Delaware Avenue. That Italian Renaissance-style building, with cast-granite fronts and marble floors and doorways, now is occupied by the Palmerton Library. First National moved its headquarters in 1972 for a third time to Fourth Street and Lafayette Avenue, tearing down the Horse Head Inn, a hotel built by the zinc company to house workers and visitors. Its low building now houses the bank's mortgage department, commercial and consumer loan departments, administrative offices, new accounts and teller services.Finally, First National moved its operations center, including its computer and bookkeeping departments in 2003 to a new building in Gilbert that also houses a branch office. The bank expects to open its ninth branch office in Wind Gap this year. Other branches are in Sciota, Tannersville and Blakeslee in Monroe County, and Mount Bethel, Bath, Northampton and Egypt in Northampton County.Computers have brought a lot of change to banking, especially for public access, said Susan Choy, a vice president in residential lending. Deposits are expected to be online this year. After that will come consumer loan applications, such as residential mortgages and home equity.The bank has always offered residential loans, Choy said, but more people own homes now than they did many years ago, people build homes at a younger age, and the programs the bank offers have evolved. Twenty years ago, borrowers were required to have a 20 percent down payment. Now the bank requires a minimum of 5 percent down with private mortgage insurance."We still work as a community bank," Choy said, "and the types of products we have are not as complex as what some of the larger banks have to offer, but our customers have better access to people to talk to."The bank also offers loans and deposit accounts for small and large businesses. "We try to provide the types of services that they need," Choy said.

joanna.poncavage@mcall.com610-820-6754

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