Local News

Banking on downtown

— For John Shoop, president of Highlands Independent Bank, keeping open a branch in downtown is a no-brainer.

“We’re very much community-oriented,” Shoop explained, adding the branch is profitable.

These days, as far as banking downtown goes, Highlands Independent Bank is the only choice in the Sebring business district.

But that wasn’t true of a few years ago.

The downtown used to have branches for SunTrust, Wachovia and Bank of America, but those buildings have been empty for years.

There’s a possibility now the Bank of America building may eventually become a university.

Jimmy Wohl, a real estate broker involved with the possible sale of the building, said a buyer from Chile has submitted the high bid on the building. The buyer wants to convert the building into a university that will feature agriculture and veterinary studies.

Whether the owner will approve the sale remains in question, he said.

The SunTrust building on Center Street and the Wachovia building on Ridgewood Drive remain for sale.

As to why those banks have closed and the Highlands Independent branch has remained open, Shoop said, that Highlands Independent is a community bank and has a more community-oriented model of business than the larger banks.

Part of the reason for the shutdown of bank branches — besides the three empty bank buildings downtown, TD Bank shut its branch in Sebring and Bank of America is closing a branch in Avon Park — is the increase in electronic banking, Shoop explained.

They do a lot of business at ATMs, Shoop said, but people still want to be able to go into a branch and speak to a person.

Vicki and Mike Jarvis agreed with that on Facebook. They said they remember when “you were a person and called by a name (at a bank); your weren’t a number or bank account. Miss that.”

The Bank of America building has been empty for around three years. The buyers, who are funded by a Chilean foundation, plan to remodel the building, Wohl said.

Wohl said it isn’t surprising the time and effort it takes to sell bank buildings.

“The difficult part is finding a way to generate revenue with these buildings,” he said.

While in some places banks are converted into office buildings, “we in Sebring don’t have a driving economy that provides businesses that need that amount of office space,” Wohl said. Available office space available exceeds the demand, he said.

Generally, bank buildings can be unsuitable to house several businesses as tenants as the structures weren’t built that way and renovations would be costly, he said.

The best solution is for a church, a university, the headquarters of a business or a call center to buy the building, Wohl said.


(863) 386-5834