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Wilson regains a bank branch in unlikely comeback story

WILSON – Colleen Bowman understands how important a bank branch is to her small town.

She grew up in Wilson, co-owns a grocery store there with her husband, and seems to know everyone in town.

Bowman also has a lengthy résumé in banking, and her new job opportunity was too good to pass up: branch manager of Bank of Akron's new location in the Village of Wilson, which has lacked a bank branch for over five and a half years.

The new branch is set to open on Monday. Bowman can't wait.

"It's like Christmas every day," she said.

In an uncommon comeback story, a rural town like Wilson is regaining a bank branch after losing its only one, when First Niagara Bank closed on Young Street in March 2014. The new branch, inside vacant retail space next to the Woodcock Brothers Brewing Co. at 638 Lake St., is opening due to persistence by local government officials and a show of confidence by Bank of Akron.

If you think branches no longer matter at a time when so many banking transactions are handled online, think again.

Businesses in Wilson have had nowhere nearby to make deposits. The grocery store was making change for other businesses. People who needed bank checks or certified checks had to travel several miles to get them. The Lake Ontario community's growth prospects suffered, too.

"The folks in the town and village were very clear about the difficulty of luring a new business to this town," said Stephen Mulé, Bank of Akron's chief retail officer. "One of the first questions they ask is, 'Well, where's the bank?' And to say, 'Well, it's seven miles that way or that way' is a little bit of a downer for people. So if anyone was on the fence in deciding to come up here, that could have been a deterrent, and I think in the past, has."

Colleen Bowman, Wilson branch manager. (Provided photo)

This will be the Bank of Akron's fifth full-service branch, and its first in Niagara County. Richard Johnson, Bank of Akron's chief risk officer, said the bank recognized the difference a branch would make in Wilson.

"That was one of our decision variables," Johnson said. "We wanted to make an impact in a community: Let the bank help them. Let them help the bank."

Though the state Department of Financial Services hasn't announced anything yet, Wilson is awaiting word on its designation as a "banking development district" by the agency. The designation aims to encourage banks to open branches in underserved areas, by making available an injection of deposits to a bank which agrees to take that step.

Bank of Akron's new branch is relatively small, at 1,100 square feet, but it suits what it calls its version of the "branch of the future." Mulé knew Bowman from when they both worked at Bank of America, and he said it was fortunate that he called her when Bank of Akron was inquiring about employee candidates for the Wilson branch. Bowman quickly emerged as the natural choice for branch manager.

"Just watching Colleen in action when you're talking to folks in town, you get the sense there's a deep relationship that's been developed over decades," Mulé said. "It's the kind of thing you can't manufacture. So we absolutely lucked out."

Bowman said her new job reflects what drew her to banking in the first place.

"I wanted to be able to help people, I want businesses to know my name," she said. When she voted on Election Day, residents at her polling place peppered her with questions about the branch and her new job.

Bank of Akron's branch will fill a void. The closest branch is a KeyBank location in Ransomville about eight miles away. Key has once again closed a branch in Newfane – about seven miles away – that the bank had temporarily closed due to concerns about mold, and that branch's future is unclear. Banking options near Wilson are few and far between.

Anthony Delmonte Jr., Bank of Akron's president, sees Wilson as a good fit for the bank. (News file photo)

Anthony Delmonte Jr., Bank of Akron's president, said the timing was right for the bank to open its new location.

"We continue to look for scale and we're always looking for opportunities in that regard," he said. "I think given our size, Wilson was a community that fit for us."

Bank of Akron had been looking at Amherst for its next branch, but instead focused on Wilson. The bank is still interested in Amherst, but wants to get the Wilson branch on solid ground first.

Delmonte credited Wilson Mayor Arthur Lawson and Town Supervisor Doyle Phillips for their persistence in bringing banking back to Wilson, and drawing attention to that need.

"They played a huge role in it," he said. "They should be commended for their efforts."

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