Can A Small Town Survive Without Its Bank? Alburgh, Vt., is on a remote peninsula near the Canadian border. But even though the town is rural, it's always had a bank. So when its citizens learned the People's United Bank branch on Main Street was closing, they feared their community would turn into a ghost town.
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Can A Small Town Survive Without Its Bank?

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Can A Small Town Survive Without Its Bank?

Can A Small Town Survive Without Its Bank?

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If you live in a small town or visit one often, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. There are these buildings and businesses along the main street that simply become part of the fabric of life. Alburgh, Vermont is one such town. It's far up north, situated on a peninsula that borders Quebec, surrounded on three sides by Lake Champlain. Alburgh is small, it's isolated, and yet there's always been somewhere to do your banking.

In January, the town's only bank, a People's United branch on Main Street, announced it was closing, and that's when the residents of Alburgh hatched a plan. Here's Vermont Public Radio's Sarah Harris.

SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: When Irene Clarke learned that the bank in Alburgh was closing, she decided to do something about it.

IRENE CLARKE: I heard a rumor on Facebook, if there can be such a thing as a rumor, and I was appalled. The realization, as I started thinking about it, that the businesses here, I mean even the bingo, they need change. You know, you don't want to drive 20 miles.

HARRIS: So the Find a Bank committee was born. Their goal: recruiting a financial institution to come to town. Alburgh's a little dilapidated, with peeling paint and boarded-up windows. There's only one main road, and the library, post office, town hall, and bank are all right there. There's a Beverage Mart, that also functions as the town's grocery store and restaurant. And there's not a lot else. The committee worried that closing the bank would be a big blow.

CLARKE: We have, you know, sweet little ladies that walk to the bank to get their $20 out, so they can go get milk and bread and the things they need. And they're not about to get in a car and drive 15 or 20 miles to another banking institution.

HARRIS: Town Clerk Carol Cleland worried about Alburgh's future.

CAROL CLELAND: If the bank closes, it's a vital part of our community that's going to be gone. You know, so what's next? Are we going to become a ghost town? With, you know - we have nothing.

HARRIS: Banking isn't always easy in rural communities. It can be a long drive to the closest bank, and because the banking industry is a consolidating one, there are fewer and fewer branches open across the country. But a lot of small towns have thriving local and community banks.

Deborah Markley is co-founder of the Rural Policy Research Institute's Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. After analyzing data from a 2010 study by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, she found that rural business owners seem more likely to be extended lines of credit when they bank locally.

DEBORAH MARKLEY: Eighty percent of them are relying on local banks, as opposed to regional and national banks. And that leads us to think that that relationship really matters.

HARRIS: That's the relationship that the Find a Bank committee wanted to rekindle. So they started asking local financial institutions if they'd come set up shop in Alburgh.

After a lot of looking, North Country Federal Credit Union answered the call. It's based in Vermont and has branches in other small towns. It's currently negotiating the sale of the bank branch with People's United.

For town tax collector and Find A Bank committee co-founder Terry Tatro, it comes as a real relief. He says having a place to do banking will help keep the town alive.

TERRY TATRO: Yeah, well, if people have to go out of town to do their banking, they're going to do other services out of town also. And sooner or later, all you're going to have left is a bedroom community. We're close to that now, and we want to go the other way.

HARRIS: And go the other way they might. Finding a bank took gumption. And keeping Alburgh alive, will too.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Harris in Burlington, Vermont.

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