Sterling Bank to close branches at senior housing sites

Employee will continue to visit locations acquired in takeover of First Independent

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor



Once current leases expire, Sterling Bank will close three limited-hours branches located within senior housing developments that it acquired in its takeover of the former First Independent Bank, according to Sterling president Ezra Eckhardt.

Those branches are at The Glenwood, 5500 N.E. 82nd Ave.,; Touchmark at Fairway Village, originally known as Waterford, 2911 S.E. Village Loop; and The Quarry, 415 S.E. 177th Ave. All are open only a couple of hours on weekdays and are used primarily by residents of those senior housing developments.

Eckhardt, Sterling’s president and chief operating officer, told The Columbian during a visit to Vancouver last week that the bank would be ending leases on the branches between December and February. After the branches close, a Sterling employee will continue to visit the three sites at regularly scheduled hours to provide customer service, according to bank officials. Sterling also says it will continue to offer rides to customers from those facilities who need to visit a full-service branch but lack transportation. All of the closed branches are within three miles of an existing branch.

The tiny branches were part of the legacy of E.W. Firstenburg, who founded First Independent and was its president for decades. Firstenburg placed a high emphasis on establishing an expansive branch network within Clark County. The Touchmark branch had special significance for Firstenburg: it opened in 2003, just after Firstenburg and his wife Mary moved into the building, and Firstenburg worked at the branch for years. He died in 2010 at age 97.

Touchmark resident Maxine Bash said she received a letter this week from Sterling with the news that her building’s branch would close on Nov. 30. “We were very disappointed,” she said. “I guess they’re just a big corporation.”

Bash said she already drove to the nearby Fisher’s Landing branch and found the employees there to be friendly and helpful. But she said she was skeptical about how well the shuttle bus would work for less mobile Touchmark residents, many of whom use walkers to get around. She expects to continue banking with Sterling to avoid the challenge of trying to change an automatic pension deposit into her bank account.

On further reflection, Bash said she tried to see the situation from Sterling’s perspective and recognized that many of its customers in the senior center might have moved their money into investments with higher income growth than bank accounts. “I hate the situation,” she aid. “But if I look at it the other way, I understand a little of it.”

At the time of its purchase of First Independent, Sterling pledged that it would not close any branches as part of the acquisition deal. But company officials were always careful about the precise wording of that pledge, adding a qualifier that they had no immediate plans to close branches.

Sterling’s acquisition of First Independent made it one the county’s top banks. It currently has 14 branches in Clark County, which will drop to 11 with the small-branch closures. It also has one branch in Stevenson, in Skamania County. Sterling employs 150 people in Clark County, down from 241 employees at First Independent before Sterling’s acquisition of the Vancouver-based bank. Sterling shrank its local staff by eliminating some back-office and administrative jobs, triggering some layoffs, early retirements, and internal transfers to jobs outside Clark County.

Sterling operates 187 branches in five states and is the Portland region’s seventh-largest bank, as measured by deposits.