A walk from Elmwood Avenue up Main Street to the State Capitol takes you past at least 15 banking institutions and more than 16,000 people on any given business day in downtown Columbia.
View interactive map of banking institutions in downtown Columbia at bottom of this story
Take a turn through the Vista and you’ll find about nine banks in as many blocks, where city statistics estimate 44,000 more people live, shop, work and visit each day.
As Columbia has slowly recovered from the worst recession in a lifetime, the two areas have become a magnet for redevelopment, bringing in millions in investment – from a retail and residential infusion to office redevelopments and entertainment venues.
The banks that are behind much of the redevelopment recently have started taking a more visible role in the action as they make new homes on Main Street and in the Vista. Those institutions range from such international financiers as Wells Fargo, which delivered a record-setting $18.9 billion in profits to its shareholders in 2012, to First Community Bank, a smaller, community-oriented institution historically based in Lexington County.
“That’s where the banks’ core business is,” says Paul Hartley, a real estate broker with NAI Avant in Columbia. “From a logistical point of view, you want to be where the action is.”
Main Street boom
With 50 percent of Columbia’s entire office market located specifically within the downtown area, it only makes sense that banks would want to be there, too, experts say, close to their customer base.
That potential base is expanding.
Employment tied to offices in Columbia has regained 95.7 percent of the related jobs that were lost during the Great Recession, according to a 2013 year-end Columbia office market report from real estate marketer Colliers International.
That means the Columbia office market ended the year on its first positive note in years, Hartley said, who also authored a year-end report for NAI Avant on Columbia office market activity. Landlords saw higher activity levels and fewer rent concessions in 2013 for the first time in years, that report says.
In the big scheme of things, only a few changes occurred in the downtown banking picture last year, but they follow two or three years in which banks made noticeable strides, some of them designating Columbia as their bank headquarters.
Among the changes:
• BB&T, a long-time player in the Columbia banking picture, recently put its name on the office tower at 1201 Main St. – the intersection of Gervais Street at Assembly Street – making that iconic location the bank’s headquarters.
• Certus Bank, though headquartered in Greenville, is making its new Columbia location in the former NBSC high-rise at the corner of Main and Lady streets.
• First Community Bank plans to open its new Columbia digs in May at the opposite corner of Main and Lady, in a four-story, 20,000-square-foot building it recently purchased and is renovating for $2 million.
• AllSouth Federal Credit Union is making a major foray into the downtown Columbia market by constructing a three-story, $12 million facility on four acres at the edge of the historic Arsenal Hill neighborhood at Gadsden Street and Elmwood Avenue, due to open this spring.
• AgFirst Farm Credit purchased the Bank of America Plaza complex a few blocks away at the north end of Main Street, and is making that its headquarters after closing an office on Taylor Street.
Then there’s First Citizens Bank, the largest privately owned bank in the state, which has been in downtown Columbia for 100 years. With assets of $8.3 billion, it started planning a 177,000-square-foot, $40 million banking tower in 2004 that opened two years later at the corner of Main and Lady streets.
Last year, the bank renovated a historic building on the 1200 block of Main Street, expanding its headquarters and opening Columbia’s first banking café.
That concept, according to Kevin Lindler, First Citizens senior vice president and metro marketing executive, provides a “unique delivery channel” for getting its services to both the new and existing residents and visitors to downtown.
Alongside lattes and lunch options, the café offers free wi-fi, image-deposit ATM and other technology needed to reach another generation of customers, Lindler said.
“It’s very important that we have a strong presence in the heart of Columbia and in the heart of Main Street,” Lindler said. “Clearly, banks and a lot of others are relocating to Main Street.”
While some customers will want traditional style branch banking, others will appreciate alternate delivery channels, he said.
First Citizens says the street’s new residents – the 400 already there and the 850 who will move into The Hub apartment complex this year – provide the bank a very important opportunity.
“The next generation’s important,” Lindler said. “There’s a lot of transfer of wealth that’s going to take place, and is taking place, so, to provide those digital channels, to provide the traditional face-to-face in the branch, and then to provide the café experience is very unique.”
First Citizens has a plan, Lindler said.
“You get these folks and you form relationships with them very early on,” he said, “and then when they get married, they buy houses, when they have children, college, planning – all of those pieces to the life cycle are extremely important to us bankers. We want to be that individual that advises and consults them through those life changes.”
Other banks also see merit in being in downtown Columbia, from the competitive visibility it provides to the more utilitarian reasons.
Wells Fargo, for instance, not only has a long history of being downtown, said CEO Holt Chetwood, but of being on Main Street.
From 1984 to 2009, Wells Fargo – formerly Wachovia – was located in the 21-story Palmetto Center with the SCANA Corp. as its landlord. When SCANA left the downtown for its campus in Cayce five years ago, Wells Fargo had the choice of locating elsewhere in the city, Chetwood said, but chose to remain on Main Street for several reasons.
“Downtown is central to all the markets we do business in in the Midlands,” Chetwood said. “It’s easily accessible, a lot of our partners are downtown. When I speak of partners, I mean the law firms, engineering firms, architectural firms – a lot of the companies we work with are in the central business district. And we believe that Main Street Columbia is South Carolina’s Main Street,” Chetwood said.
Because Wells Fargo has the largest market share in the city and the state, Chetwood said it’s important for the bank to be located on Main Street.
Wells Fargo moved across the street from the Palmetto Center into the former First Union bank building at 1441 Main St., where it occupies more than 49,000 square feet of space. With alternate banking locations in the downtown area – at 1901 Main St., on Hampton Street and on Assembly Street – Wells Fargo occupies more than 70,000 square feet of space in the city, it said.
Chetwood said Wells Fargo is generally optimistic about the economy in 2014 and that many of the bank’s business partners have figured out ways to make money coming out of the 2008-2009 recession.
“We’ve got innovative business owners here in the Midlands that have made adjustments and found a way to thrive in this economy,” Chetwood said. “There is a good bit of activity in a number of industries and we are prepared to be a source of capital for those companies that are looking to grow.”
State banking center
For perspective, the four largest banks in South Carolina prior to the advent of interstate banking in 1979, were all headquartered in Columbia, according to Fred Green, South Carolina Banking Association president and CEO.
Those four banks were C&S (Citizens and Southern), Banker’s Trust, South Carolina National and First National South Carolina, Green said. C&S and Banker’s Trust are now Bank of America and South Carolina National and First National South Carolina are now Wells Fargo.
“The banking business those banks once had is still here,” Green said, though their current parent institutions (Bank of America and Wells Fargo) are not headquartered in the state. “Columbia remains the state headquarters office for them,” Green said.
Looking at South Carolina-headquartered banks, the two largest are in Columbia – SCBT and First Citizens.
Based on metropolitan statistical areas, Columbia banks hold $15.8 billion in deposits; Greenville banks hold $13.7 billion in deposits; and Charleston banks hold $10 billion in deposits, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Further explaining Columbia’s place in South Carolina banking, Green said of all the banks headquartered in South Carolina, more than 50 percent of their total deposits are in banks headquartered in Midlands. Federal statistics back up Green’s point.
The total deposits of South Carolina-based banks headquartered in the Midlands was $14.1 billion as of Dec. 31, according to FDIC. The total deposits of all 68 banks headquartered in South Carolina as of Dec. 31 was $27.7 billion.
“That says a lot about the concentration of (the banking business) in the Midlands, and it obviously has headquartered downtown the two largest S.C.-headquartered banks,” Green said. “Columbia remains the banking headquarters of the state.”
‘A new normal’
Banks – particularly regional ones – enjoy downtown “prestige locations” for their larger, headquartered institutions that cover larger territories, said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp.
“They want their name on top of a building. They want to be in those highly active areas,” Delk said. “That’s a really good thing. It’s been really key for Main Street in pushing people, in pushing activity into Main Street.”
And having the substantially increased population that the banking center brings with it will continue to drive additional retail to the area, he said.
Lindler, of First Citizens, said the economic downturn wrought a lot of changes in the banking industry via mergers, acquisitions – and name changes. Not only has the landscape changed so far as a fewer number of banks that now exist, but new names also are becoming more familiar.
“It is the new normal of what we do,” Lindler said, adding that greater regulation means smaller “margins” or profitability for the institutions, and therefore increased competition for less business. “We’re all in a new normal,” he said.
“We are a commercial, retail and wealth bank,” Lindler said. “That is extremely important. We serve not only the businesses, and bank a lot of the businesses that are on Main Street, but also their employees and executives.”
View Downtown Columbia Banks in a full screen map