Farmers and Merchants Bank moves into Freeport
A new Farmers & Merchants Bank opened in Freeport on Monday to much fanfare as the town leaders and residents fretted that they would be out of a bank forever.
“This is beautiful,” said Rodney Chapman, 91, of Freeport. “I'm sure it's going to be a success, as they will be the only bank in town.
“You want to walk to the bank, not drive out to the country,” he said.
The last bank at 236 Fifth St. was PNC, which closed in February. All accounts for the Freeport branch were consolidated and moved to the PNC on Route 356 in Buffalo Township.
The interior marbled walls and vault are the constant in what has been a number of bank owners in the 145-year old building.
When borough council found out that PNC was leaving, they quickly searched for another bank.
“We were very concerned,” said Don Rehner, 65, president of Freeport Council. “We wanted a bank in town. We always had a bank.”
Mayor James Swartz Jr., 60, remembers getting a free Hopalong Cassidy plastic bank in the late 1950s there when he was a kid.
“We used to be able to support two banks,” Swartz said. “Now, I hope that we can support one.”
Rehner approached Farmers & Merchants Bank, whose niche is small-town banking.
“We were born in Kittanning, so this is the kind of town that we serve,” said Richard Krauland, president and CEO of the Farmers & Merchants Bank, still headquartered in Kittanning. The new Freeport branch is its ninth location in Armstrong County.
Krauland describes his bank as a consumer bank that caters to serving local businesses with mortgages, consumer loans and wealth management, he said. “There's a lot of good business in a town like this,” he said.
One local business owner complained that not having a bank in town hurt his business.
“Then we had to go out of town to get change,” said George Wolfe, owners of Wolfie's Pizza just down the street. “We had to go the country to go to a bank — when years ago people from the country used to come here to go to the bank.”
Wolfe was referring to the banks in Buffalo Township and surrounding communities in the Route 356 corridor, which has been drawing new residents and developments in the last decade.
“I felt bad for the senior citizens because a lot of them don't drive,” Wolfe said. “How were they going to get to the bank?”
The small towns like Freeport need banks to help them not only stay alive, but also redevelop, according to local leaders.
“A town has its churches, fire departments and its banks,” said Robert Bower, an Armstrong County commissioner who attended Monday's ceremony.
Tom Klingensmith of Gilpin, owner of Freeport Foods, a small market, deli and restaurant in town, was the first customer in the door Monday.
According to Klingensmith, when he opened his store 11 years ago, Farmers gave him a business loan when the big banks wouldn't.
Freeport Foods is the only small market left in town and even offers breakfast at $4.49 for two eggs, bacon, home fries and toast.
“Big” doesn't work for Klingensmith: Most anything large, either a bank or a big box store, hasn't helped his business.
“Things are looking up now,” he said. “We have new businesses in town.”
But not everyone sees the improvement, including one of his customers.
“Small towns, they're disintegrating,” said Jim Gundlach, 67, of Buffalo Township, who regularly meets friends at Freeport Foods for breakfast.
But one of his friends, Sally Weidenhoff, 66, of Tarentum, countered: “We like to come here. It's just a happy place. It's cozy.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.