Closure of bank rattles Main St.

Shopkeepers mourn loss of convenience, bit of local character

April 26, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Ellicott City's Main Street used to have two banks. Nowadays it has one.

Soon, it will have none.

Farmers & Mechanics National Bank has sent letters to customers announcing that its Main Street branch will close July 20, a change certain to complicate life for dozens of merchants whose shops line the old town's narrow streets.

Shopkeepers - accustomed to a short walk to the three-story mainstay when they need change - will have to drive about a mile to the bank's closest branch at U.S. 40 and Rogers Avenue, or transfer their accounts to other banks.

"I go down twice a week and deposit checks. Now I have to get in my car," said Janet Decker, a manager at Sheppard Art Gallery on Main Street. "I think it's a huge shame: It almost makes the historic area of Ellicott City not a town anymore. ... It makes it an open-air shopping mall."

"So where are we going to get our checks cashed?" asked Angela Wyckoff, a framer with the gallery.

"Rogers Avenue," Decker explained.

"No, no, no," Wyckoff said, frowning. "That's so wrong."

Farmers & Mechanics officials have declined to comment about their decision, and their letter sent last weekend did not explain it. But Ellicott City merchants said business at the branch has lagged.

Bank officials sold the venerable white-stone structure several months ago to Donald R. Reuwer Jr., a developer who owns other properties on Main Street. Declaring that the town is "ready to have a little night life," he said he might put in a nightclub after he renovates the interior.

"We're going to miss the bank - it's a nice service - but [Farmers & Mechanics] is right up the street," he said.

The Main Street branch had several factors working against it: no parking lot, no drive-through, no weekend or evening hours. But its closing is part of a trend. Across the country, banks are shutting their less-profitable branches, relying more heavily on online banking, said Benton E. Gup, an industry expert who teaches at the University of Alabama.

"Bank branches cost a lot of money to operate," he said. "That's not to say branches are dead. There's just going to be fewer of them, and they're going to follow the population."

The Main Street building has housed a bank since 1907, according to Howard County Historical Society records. It began as Washington Trust Bank, which failed after a merger in 1931. In 1934, Commercial & Farmers Bank opened there - the first branch for a company that grew into a local chain.

Some Main Street merchants suspected their bank would close when Commercial & Farmers merged with Farmers & Mechanics at the end of 1999. The town's other bank closed in 1981 after a merger. But Farmers & Mechanics assured residents that it didn't expect any closures.

"I think it stinks, but there's nothing you can do," said Michael Kornstein, whose I Love Theatre shop is next to the bank.

As Elvis crooned over the store's sound system, Kornstein said he knew the branch wasn't getting enough business. Only locals stopped in, he said. Now store owners will have to plan when they need change, he said.

The historic district will have automated teller machines, but money isn't the sole reason that people are disappointed to see the bank leave.

Although it's not the bustling mill town of yore, Ellicott City's Main Street has hung on to its distinction as a traditional downtown: People who live along the winding road and in nearby neighborhoods can buy groceries and clothes and do their banking without leaving.

Town regulars are sorry to lose their financial anchor.

"It's just going to be unusual not to have a bank on Main Street," said Vickie Goeller, the Phoenix Emporium's bookkeeper.

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