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Branch closures from takeover of Tower Bancorp will hit retirement communities hard

When Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. completes its purchase of Tower Bancorp Inc. early next year, it plans to close 29 branches to eliminate overlap and cut costs.

When Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. completes its purchase of Tower Bancorp Inc. early next year, it plans to close 29 branches to eliminate overlap and cut costs.

Five of the former First National Bank of Chester County branches - now owned by Tower Bancorp - slated for closure Feb. 17 are in Chester County and Delaware County retirement communities. Residents are taking the loss hard.

"For some of us, this is not just an inconvenience. This is devastating," said Robin May, who uses a scooter and has lived in Freedom Village at Brandywine near Coatesville since 2009. "Even if they decide to do a shuttle to [Susquehanna's] Downingtown branch, I can't get on the steps of the bus. It's really catastrophic," said May, who has severe arthritis.

"It's never a popular thing to close a branch, no matter where it is," Susquehanna spokesman Stephen Trapnell said. He said there would be a full-service branch within five miles of each closed branch after the merger.

Susquehanna is buying Tower, of Harrisburg, for $340 million. Tower bought First National, of West Chester, a year ago for $50 million and changed its name to 1N.

Richard Schlott, executive director of Freedom Village, which has 450 residents, said he was working on a solution. "I've obviously been searching diligently throughout the area. We have two prospective banks that are showing some interest," he said.

That banks are awash in deposits might make finding a replacement for Susquehanna a little harder these days, compared to before the economy slumped and interest rates plummeted, when banks had a hard time earning money on their core business of taking deposits and making loans.

Domestic deposits in U.S. banks are up 18 percent, to $8.51 trillion, over the last three years, and net loans have fallen 9 percent, to $7.14 trillion, according to September data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"It is out of balance right now, if you look at the loans-to-deposits ratio," said Rick Weiss, a bank analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott L.L.C. Retirement-community branches are "good when it's hard to get deposits. I'm sure those days will return," Weiss said. "Today, the banks are almost turning them away."

For residents of continuing-care retirement communities, which were conceived as little towns, the prospect of losing a bank branch comes as a shock. After all, these are people who have decent amounts of money. Otherwise, they could not afford to live there.

Susquehanna's decision to close retirement-community branches, which usually have a relatively small deposit base, followed a similar move this year in Montgomery County by First Niagara Financial Group Inc., which bought Harleysville National Bank & Trust Co. last year.

The affected communities were Foulkeways at Gwynedd, Normandy Farms Estates in Blue Bell, Meadowood in Worcester, and the Peter Becker Community in Harleysville, where Harleysville Savings Bank stepped into the breach.

Ambler Savings Bank replaced First Niagara branches at three other retirement communities, which had an aggregate of $28 million in deposits on June 30, according to the FDIC.

It is unclear how much in deposits the three retirement branches have now. Ambler Savings chief executive Martin R. Brown did not respond to two calls about the new branches, which officially opened in September, according to Pennsylvania Department of Banking records.

Miriam B. Theobald, a resident of Normandy Farms Estates who celebrated her 103d birthday this month, said she was thrilled that Ambler stepped in. "I couldn't exist here without a branch. I can't drive," she said.

Jeremy Neeley, executive director of Normandy Farms Estates, part of the ACTS Retirement-Life Communities, had a specific goal when looking for a bank to replace First Niagara. "We wanted to make sure we were working with a community bank, where the likelihood of a merger and closure was lower," he said.

But not every community bank is ready to add retirement branches. First National Bank & Trust Co. of Newtown has them, but "we wouldn't look to open a new one in this environment," said Milissa Lenahan, vice president of operations and security director.

Ted Peters, chairman and chief executive of Bryn Mawr Trust Co., which has seven retirement-community branches, called those branches "profitable, not hugely profitable." Keys for Bryn Mawr are getting at least 60 percent of the residents to open accounts and winning wealth-management business from some of them, he said.

Ed Plasha, director of finance at Kendal Corp.'s Kendal-Crosslands Communities in Kennett Square, where Susquehanna plans to close two branches, said he was confident Kendal would find another bank to operate branches there. "We've agreed to give them more access to our residents" to sell wealth advisory and trust services, he said.

The other two branches Susquehanna plans to close are near Media, at Lima Estates, and at Granite Farms Estates.

"We were all very disappointed," said Granite Farms resident Elaine Bausewine, 84, who said losing the ATM would be huge.

Betty Leifer, a resident of Freedom Village, scoffed at the idea that a branch five miles away would help.

"For some folks, five miles could be 500," she said. "It makes no difference. Can't get there."