Columbia Bank announces pending closure of Concrete branch

By Jude Dippold

The Upper Skagit Valley’s longtime relationship with banking in Concrete will come to an end on Sept. 13 when Columbia Bank shutters its Concrete branch, the heart of local business and personal banking for generations. The breakup is liable to be both difficult and messy, according to most local business owners and ordinary bank customers, and is expected to hamper Town of Concrete’s ability to promote economic development.

Columbia Bank made the announcement in a letter dated April 23 and mailed to customers of the Concrete branch. Most area residents received the letter on Thur., April 25. On Friday, Columbia Bank made one of its senior executives, Nicole Sherman, Senior Vice President/Market Region Manager, available at the Concrete Branch to meet with local customers.

Sherman maintained that Columbia made the decision to close the local branch based on changing customer banking preferences, citing a greater reliance on online banking and decreasing in-bank traffic at the Concrete branch, which will be merged with Columbia’s branch in Burlington, 29 miles away. She declined to say whether Columbia would realize a cost savings by ending service in Concrete. Columbia Bank, Sherman said, stands ready to help customers make the transition to service in its Burlington bank branch, promising to make herself and other Columbia executives available to customers during the next several months to teach them how to use “other touchpoints.” While Columbia has no plans to maintain any sort of banking presence in Concrete after Sept. 13, Sherman says the company could consider an ATM machine somewhere in the area if requested, although she cited numerous obstacles to doing so.

While Columbia is promising to ease the transition to the Burlington branch, some of Concrete’s biggest banking customers see some large and possibly expensive problems looming on the horizon. Mike Frank of Albert’s Red Apple and Carol Rohan of Cascade Supply see serious issues for their businesses in handling deposits and in obtaining the daily cash supplies necessary for store operations.

Frank put it bluntly. “My father always taught us if you don’t have a school, you don’t have a town; and if you don’t have a bank, you don’t have business.”

While Sherman maintains that Concrete businesses can handle their daily cash and deposit needs by utilizing a carrier service, Frank and Rohan argue that would only serve to increase their operational costs to the detriment of their customers. Similarly, they also contend that using their own employees for daily 60-mile round trips to the bank branch in Burlington would be a wasteful use of employee time.

They also see a danger if their customers are forced to go to Burlington to do their own banking.

“If you have to drive downriver to do your banking, chances are you are going to do other business there instead of here,” Frank said. “It’s going to hurt businesses here more than anything else I can think of.”
Rohan agrees and adds that the bank closing will ultimately undo any attempts to attract new business to the area. “If you don’t have a bank, how do you draw them here? I think this is going to devastate the town.”

Concrete Mayor Jason Miller, who has been in the forefront of the town’s economic development efforts, agrees that the bank closing could be a fatal blow to the town and the region, calling it “one click away from a ‘Black Swan’ event.”

“A great deal is being written these days about the dying of the American Dream throughout the rural areas of this country,” Miller said. “This is precisely how it happens—one corporate decision at a time. It’s not like residents of the Upper Skagit Valley have done anything to cause this to happen. It’s simply that Columbia Bank doesn’t think we deserve the same service as customers in more densely populated areas. We’re not profitable enough.”

While Columbia Bank plans to put the Concrete branch building on the market after the closing, its former manager Phillip Moran would like to see the company maintain a presence at the site, possibly with reduced hours.
“I would hope that there would be some reconsideration,” said Moran. “A very aggressive approach by the community may cause the bank to take a second look. There are ways to streamline and cut expenses.”

During his career, Moran worked at all three banks that have occupied the current site since the building was built in 1912, The State Bank Of Concrete, Summit Bank, and Columbia Bank. He believes the Concrete branch is the oldest continuously operated bank in the Columbia system.

Be that as it may, unless Columbia Bank reconsiders its decision, Columbia’s business and personal customers at the Concrete branch will be banking somewhere new this fall. Sherman believes that Columbia Bank will keep those customers through the transition “because of the trust we’ve built.”
Given the mood of Columbia’s business and personal customers in the Concrete area Friday, she probably shouldn’t bank on that expectation.

[SIDEBAR]

Columbia Bank donates $25K to Concrete Boys & Girls Club

While Columbia Bank is ending its physical presence in Concrete, the bank has made a $25,000 donation to the Boys and Girls Club of Concrete as it exits.

The donation, explained Senior Vice President/Market Region Manager Nicole Sherman, is meant to help sustain the new club during the next five years.

“Our investment will allow the Club to extend their services to youth programs throughout the summer months,” she said.

The funds also will give the club the ability to provide meal programs for participants and to purchase items needed for participation on field trips, according to Sherman.

The news of the donation to the Boys and Girls Club of Concrete was contained in a letter to Concrete area customers of Columbia Bank. That letter broke the news of the branch closing on Sept. 13.


Jude Dippold is the former managing editor of the Times Observer in Warren, Penn. He has been a Concrete resident since 2015.


















 
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