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As closure looms, Idaho community looks for successor to only bank in town

Brandon Hollingsworth, Spokane Public Radio

In most parts of the country, towns and cities crave landing the imprimatur of a national brand. Wallace, Idaho, is proud that virtually no big brands are seen on building marquees. Among the few storefronts that carry a national name, the U.S. Bank on Cedar Street is considered vital. But the bank’s parent company has decided the Wallace branch will close early next year.

U.S. Bank says its business is changing as more people conduct their banking online and through mobile apps. The company, which began in Idaho in 1867, wants to move away from a model built around smaller, in-person transactions at physical locations. Since 2019, more than 500 U.S. Bank locations across the nation have closed. That includes more than fifteen in Idaho. And come January, the Wallace branch will join that list.

Dave Copelan, of the Wallace Chamber of Commerce, says a physical bank isn't an anachronism. It's a necessity.

“All the businesses here that do cash business – that includes our grocery store, all of the restaurants, the taverns, the microbreweries – they all need cash,” Copelan said. “That is really important, to have a bank here to be able to do those transactions.”

While online and mobile banking allow people to deposit checks remotely, working with cash usually requires in-person service.

“You can’t exactly take a picture of a hundred-dollar-bill and put it in your account,” Copelan said.

Jeff McLeod owns and manages the grocery store on the eastern edge of downtown Wallace. He says nearly a third of the money spent in his store is cash. And that money has to be deposited in person.

“A business like ours definitely needs to go to a bank physically and deal with a teller on a day-to-day basis,” McLeod said.

The bank’s impending closure leaves him with few good choices.

“My options right now look like it’s either, remain with U.S. Bank and drive to Pinehurst, which is a thirty-mile round trip, or change banks,” McLeod said. “The closest probably being Osburn, which is still out of the way.”

In fact, that’s the choice that faces all of U.S. Bank’s Wallace customers. If they decide to move their accounts to a new bank, they’re stuck with an inconvenience because there’s no other physical bank in town. And if they stay, they’ll have to get on Interstate 90 and drive to the nearest branch, in Pinehurst. Corki Mettila says in the winter, that’s a non-starter.

“For instance, if I wanted to go into Coeur d’Alene or even to Pinehurst and the roads were not great, I would just choose to wait another day. And I know I am not alone in that,” Mettila said.

Mettila and her husband have been U.S. Bank customers for more than 40 years. They have five accounts, covering both personal banking and their small businesses. On the festival weekends that draw big tourist crowds, she says having a bank nearby is critical.

“The shop where I have my things downtown, I talked to the gal that works in there, and she said on a busy summer afternoon it’s nothing for her to have to go across the street to the bank maybe three, four times to get change because she’s so busy,” Mettila said. “So where are the businesses supposed to get change if we don’t have a bank?”

McLeod is worried people who choose to continue with U.S. Bank will shift their shopping patterns.

“When you have an institution like U.S. Bank leave and people don’t switch their accounts, that takes our customers out of our town,” McLeod said. “They’ll go to the bank. What else will they do in that town they choose to bank at? Will they shop for groceries? Will they stop at that post office, will they go to that hardware store?"

Dave Copelan and other town leaders have accepted that U.S. Bank is leaving Wallace. He said they’re working now to get another bank to establish a physical office. And he’s optimistic that will happen; other banks have reached out and they’re interested. But there’s not enough time to get a new bank open for business by the time the U.S. Bank branch closes in late January.

“This is not something that you do overnight. You have to make sure your Is are dotted, your Ts are crossed,” Copelan said. “You’re dealing with people’s money and their livelihoods. And so it’s not just a matter of filling a space and putting a warm body or a warm bank there. We need to make sure this is done right.”

Jeff McLeod and Corki Mettila said they’re on board. If a new bank moves to town, they’d gladly switch their business over.

“I can’t take an extra hour of my day to do banking,” McLeod said. “I don’t desire to, and if somebody were to move in and be part of this community, I would like to support them as part of this community and do business with them daily.”

U.S. Bank declined to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement, the company said it knows the closure will be disruptive for its Wallace customers. It is considering whether to leave an ATM in town. But its decision to close the branch on Cedar Street will not be reversed.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.