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Sterling Bank is big step in Lacrosse’s recovery

It’s not often that small towns throw open their arms to big-city banking.

Yet that is just what’s happening in the wheat farming community of LaCrosse, Wash., where Sterling Bank is opening a branch.

LaCrosse has hit upon tough times in recent years: It’s lost a quarter of its population since 1990, fire razed the hardware store, it hasn’t had a doctor in 45 years and the grocery store closed. Those disappointments have led to townspeople digging in. And it means that the opening of a bank branch is more than simple business, said Gary Wargo, the superintendent of the local school district and civic leader attempting to rehabilitate commerce and services through a group called LaCrosse Community Pride. It’s about the restoration of critical services that keeps small towns vital.

Sterling’s branch office will once again afford residents the ability to cash a check. Businesses can make cash deposits. The local high school can get a few rolls of quarters and a stack of small bills to make change at the concession stand during basketball games.

“We’re just excited to have Sterling come to town,” Wargo said.

The run of tough luck hit bottom last August when the Bank of Whitman failed and its assets were seized by federal banking regulators.

Though Columbia Bank bought many of the failed bank’s assets, LaCrosse and several other small towns in remote Eastern Washington lost out.

It left residents with a 30-mile drive to Colfax if they wanted to visit a bank.

Spokane-based Sterling was interested right away, said bank spokeswoman Cara Coon.

The bank is keen on supporting the community’s effort to remain viable, and Sterling believes that the heady times for agriculture position LaCrosse with solid deposit potential.

“And we really look at this as an opportunity to expand our agriculture lending base,” she said.

Sterling already has 30 branch offices in Eastern Washington.

Wargo said more than 300 signatures have been collected from people indicating their intent to switch their banking services to Sterling.

The local Community Pride organization bought a building and Sterling signed a five-year lease.

It’s a good step, Wargo said, that should benefit the community.

In an email message Thursday, Wargo said the community has embraced a saying: “There are two traits that pioneers brought with them to western Whitman County: dyed-in-the-wool optimism and a tenacity that verged on stubbornness. Traits that were useful then, useful now, and will be useful in the future for the success of our community and area.”