Although the busy corner of W. Lisbon and W. North avenues in Milwaukee has featured a bank building since the 1920s, no banking has been done inside it for many years.
The old gray building, once a branch of First Wisconsin National Bank, now is used by a religious organization.
But recently, Town Bank, sensing opportunity in the area, decided it was time to bring banking back to the corner of Lisbon and North, an intersection that serves as a gateway to the city's Uptown, Sherman Park, Washington Heights and Washington Park neighborhoods.
Today, only a few steps away from the old defunct bank building, Hartland-based Town Bank is operating a full-service branch—complete with a drive-through—in a modern, new, red brick building.
Jay Mack, president and chief executive of Town Bank, said he thinks there’s new business to be found by establishing a branch in that part of Milwaukee’s central city and serving the small companies and consumers located there.
He said the area is under-served by financial institutions.
“We do a lot of small-business lending, and small businesses don’t necessarily come to the bank. You need to come to them or be up in their market,” Mack said.
Mack said he knows that area isn’t redeveloping the way Walker’s Point, where Town Bank’s other Milwaukee County branch is located, is. But he said Uptown and adjacent areas can use the new influx of capital from his bank.
“Even though that market has had challenges—certainly Sherman Park and to the east has had challenges—there are still quite a few small businesses on the north side of Milwaukee, and we’re not reaching those businesses from our location on South First Street,” Mack said. “So we wanted to be positioned in an area where we might have an opportunity to bank more of the small businesses there.”
Town Bank has more than 20 branches in Wisconsin and is the sixth-largest bank based in the state, with assets of about $1.9 billion. Last year, the company made a profit of more than $12.1 million.
The decision to open a branch in Uptown is evidence of a goal by Town Bank and its parent company, Rosemont, Ill.-based Wintrust Financial Corp., to invest in places where a branch may inspire other nearby investment and economic growth, said Russell Kashian, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater economics professor.
“It’s actually a reflection of Town Bank’s business model,” said Kashian, who tracks financial institutions statewide and nationally. “Town Bank has a commitment to the minority community.”
Mack said that because the W. Lisbon and W. North avenues intersection carries so much automobile traffic, being on the corner provides visibility that’s “sort of a billboard for us.”
There are some branches of other banks not far away, and BMO Harris Bank has been praised for building a new branch to replace the one torched during a riot in Sherman Park in the summer of 2016.
Mack said the Milwaukee neighborhood has an industrial history, and the bank is optimistic about more businesses and jobs for the area.
“There’s a renewed interest of capital coming into that area—public and private sector capital—to bring more manufacturing and business growth into the area,” Mack said.
Although community banks typically are good corporate citizens, they are not charities, so when they open a brick-and-mortar branch, they expect it be successful.
“These things aren’t on wheels. This isn’t a bookmobile,” Kashian said. “It’s an investment in the community. It’s a great thing.”
Mayor Tom Barrett said, "Banks are inherently cautious, so the fact that Town Bank is opening and investing on Lisbon Avenue is a strong indication that good things are happening in this neighborhood.”
Mack said the bank laid the groundwork and even established some new accounts before opening the branch in late August.
“We hired a staff there that knows the area, knows the market,” Mack said. “Before we opened, we started doing more marketing in that area. Not just advertising, but calling on businesses, going door-to-door introducing ourselves, getting to know people in the local business circle in that area. So we had some nice momentum going even before we opened our doors, and some recognition in the market, in the neighborhood, that we were coming.”
The new branch at W. Lisbon and W. North avenues comes at a time when banks are opening fewer physical branches.
“We position ourselves more as a community bank, so we feel that our brand of our banking might be attractive to the area,” Mack said. “So far, so good.”
This article was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.