Bank merger strikes a blow; Westminster loses planned development


Already reeling from the loss of the downtown post office and Mather's department store, Westminster officials learned yesterday that plans for a $6 million development and 135 new jobs have been canceled as part of a bank merger.

The news came with an announcement that Westminster-based Carroll County Bank & Trust Co. would be acquired by BB&T; Corp. of Winston, N.C.

"As of yesterday, 135 new jobs were created. As of today, the world has changed," said Karen Blandford, Westminster's manager of housing and community development. Carroll County Bank & Trust Co. had planned to develop the former Farmers Supply Co. property as a major corporate complex downtown. The 1-acre site, off Main Street at Liberty and Green streets, would have included 2 1/2 stories of parking -- 203 spaces -- and three levels of office space. Planning for the project began four years ago.

BB&T; scrapped those plans yesterday, but said it would give Westminster a $2.25 million donation and the land. Carroll County Bank's current offices on Main Street would become a regional headquarters for BB&T.;

Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan, who this week called the development a "crown jewel of downtown," yesterday tried to imagine the city's future without it.

"Obviously, I would have preferred that things went ahead as planned, but there are no guarantees in life. I am disappointed, but there was nothing we could have done to avoid this," Yowan said. "On the surface, however, the land and money are certainly far more generous than we could expect from many corporations.

"The main thing lost is time and the blood, sweat and tears that everybody put into this. But we might be better off than we were before."

High hopes

Four years ago, rundown buildings marked the spot.

The bank project included a $40,000 demolition, a cost the bank assumed.

Officials hoped the development would help overcome the loss of Mather's, which closed in 1996 after 106 years, and of the post office, which moved to new quarters away from downtown in August. Some downtown merchants say they have lost business as a result.

Yowan thinks the bank site has potential.

"It will be easier to market now than it was four years ago. The city didn't have the property then. Now we have it and $2.25 million. We are starting over but not from scratch," he said.

The city might contact some of those previously interested in the property, he said.

"We will survive this and redouble our efforts."

Long history

For Thomas B. Beyard, director of planning and public works for Westminster, the merger will mean a loss of local pride as well.

"The bank has been very much a presence in Westminster throughout a long history," he said. "All their presidents and board members have come from Westminster. It is a loss to have that kind of control go away."

Born of a number of mergers itself, Carroll County Bank & Trust Co.'s founding institutions date back nearly 150 years.

In 1948, Carroll County National Bank of Westminster was created by the merger of three banks founded in the 19th century -- Westminster Savings Bank, First National Bank of Westminster, and Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Carroll County.

Farmers and Mechanics Bank, the oldest of the three, was founded in 1850. In 1880, the bank's cashier reportedly boasted that he knew every depositor and the balance carried by each, according to a Carroll County Bank & Trust history.

The bank's assets totaled $50,000 then.

Carroll County National Bank and Manchester Bank merged in 1962, forming Carroll County Bank & Trust Co., which today has $750 million in assets.

In 1992, its directors and shareholders formed Mason-Dixon Bancshares Inc., the parent company of Bank of Maryland, Rose Shanis Financial Services LLC and Carroll County Bank & Trust Co.

Mason-Dixon has $1.2 billion in assets and 500 employees.

Neighborhood bank

Over the years, Carroll County Bank & Trust, the largest of Mason-Dixon's holdings, has captured 25 percent of the county's bank market and created a high-profile image as a neighborhood bank.

The bank has financed expansions of Carroll County General Hospital, loans for Westminster downtown redevelopment, the construction of Greater Baltimore Temple, a Hindu temple in Finksburg, and a number of projects at Western Maryland College.

Customers were concerned that a bank with roots dating before the Civil War would end its longtime community support for 4-H fairs, fund-raisers and Little League teams.

Bank officials yesterday tried to calm such fears, telling many longtime customers that the merger with BB&T; is primarily a change in name.

"They will still be dealing with the same bankers they have dealt with in the past. We will be able to bring to them products and financial services that we couldn't bring ourselves," said Michael L. Oster, president of Carroll County Bank & Trust.

The merger will result in some reductions in back office jobs, he said, but BB&T; has made a commitment to train those employees in new jobs serving customers.

The North Carolina company leaves the local decision-making in the community, "very similar to the way that Carroll County Bank has operated for 148 years," Oster said.

Patrons value visibility

The bank's visibility in the community was valued by customers.

"I know them, they know me," Dave Watson, a customer at Carroll County Bank in Taneytown, said yesterday. "They don't ask for ID when I go to cash a check -- put it that way. I would think that's the most important thing, that the people don't lose their jobs. I'd hate to see them close the branch."

At the Westminster branch at Route 140 and Englar Road, two longtime customers took the news in stride.

"It'll be all right," said Jack Stoner, who says he has used the bank all his adult life.

Carl Coburn, 45, of Sykesville chose the bank 13 years ago specifically because it was local, he said.

"I'm not impressed it was sold," he said. But Coburn wouldn't look elsewhere yet.

"I'll see," he said. "If services change, I'll go elsewhere."

Sun staff writers Ellie Baublitz and Anne Haddad contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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