Bank Helps Locals Put Down Roots

With their private jets parked in airplane hangars and millions of dollars in "toxic" assets hurting homeowners, banks have been cast as one of the "bad guys" in the nation's recent economic troubles.

But one bank is putting its federal bailout money to good use, helping jumpstart the local economy and enabling people to buy homes.

Walla Wall Wash.-based Banner Bank has branches throughout the Northwest. And it's using $50 million of the $124 million in bailout money it received for a program it started in Portland, Ore., called the "Great Northwestern Home Rush."

Several of the bank's clients are builders, with hundreds of newly constructed homes going unsold for almost a year. The idea is to push qualified buyers back into the market.

By offering bargain-basement, 3-7/8 percent financing, Banner hopes to encourage potential buyers to get off the sidelines and purchase homes.

"I know it's been a bad rap for a while that banks aren't doing loans, banks aren't there for their customers, they aren't there for their community -- and we are!" Banner's Lenny Severs told CBS News correspondent Priya David in Part Two of the Early Show series, "Early Across America," which tells stories of hope amid the economic despair sweeping the nation.

The way companies such as AIG and Citigroup handle their money angers Severs. If the bigger banks acted the way a smaller one like his does, he says, the difference would be monumental. "If banks just sit on that money and don't do anything with it, it doesn't help anybody," Severs says.

When Banner Bank began the program March 7, it thought it would see 10 to 15 homes sold. Now, three weeks later, more than 60 homes in the area have been snatched up.

"It was like the floodgates opened," Severs said.

Those purchases are helping others, too, namely, the painters, carpenters and plumbers who've seen their projects decline.

"Today, we had some landscapers out doing grass and tomorrow we have a guy coming to build a fence," said David Brothers, a new homeowner. "So it's got us going out and spending money and it's putting other people to work who need that work. It seems to have a big ripple effect on the economy."

This week, Banner is expanding its program to other parts of the Northwest, and the company's CEO says he's gotten inquiries from other banks about the program.

Ken Gertz, a builder, calls the staff at Banner "the greatest guys on the planet" -- words you wouldn't hear most people use about bankers these days. But its contributions to the community, evident by all the "Sold" signs Gertz sees, make him hopeful about the impact the program is having on the area.

"The housing market is what brings the economy down," he said. "And it's what will bring the economy back."
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