Valley Bank expands in new location
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POLSON — Valley Bank, which recently moved its Polson branch into the former First Citizens/Unity Bank building near the intersection of Highway 93 and First St. W., is bucking the banking industry’s downsizing trends with its new home.
The spacious new digs, directly across the street from Valley Bank’s previous home, offer three qualities the bank’s management sought: better parking, easier access for customers and room to grow.
Valley Bank was founded in Ronan in 1984 by Al Buhr and community investors, and continues under his leadership as CEO, and his son, Jamie, as president. The bank has branches in Pablo, Arlee, Hot Springs, St. Ignatius and Thompson Falls. The Polson branch opened in the Safeway store in 2006 and moved into the former Glacier Bank location next to the bridge in 2015.
While the latter spot offered expansive views of Flathead Lake, “parking was subpar and getting in and out, especially during summertime, was a nightmare,” said Polson branch manager David Lewing.
“Valley Bank always wanted to find a more permanent home in Polson where we could found a full-service branch, but it was hard to find the ideal spot,” he added. “You want something with accessibility, visibility from the highway, and a drive-through that’s easy for people to get in and out.”
When Unity Bank, which bought out First Citizens in 2020, decided to relocate at the Ridgewater development, the building became available. According to Lewing, “it was exactly what we were looking for.”
First Citizens opened the bank in 1978, and the building has served as a cornerstone of downtown Polson ever since. Its large lobby once housed several teller windows – reflective of an era that predates online banking. It was also built to accommodate all the equipment banks once needed, including check encoders and proof machines, and a sizeable staff.
With an increasing number of customers banking online via mobile phone and debit card, the banking industry as a whole is downsizing.
While moving into a larger facility appears to be going against that trend, Lewing is confident “the need for a physical presence is never going to go away, and that’s how I think it should be. I’m a firm believer in the community bank model, the need for face to face interaction.”
Valley Bank staffs the main floor with seven employees and has already rented six of the eight office spaces in the second story to two local attorneys and a Human Resources consultant. The new owners have also spruced up the downstairs with fresh paint, new flooring and window treatments, and added new signage. “She’s an old gal that needs some love,” says Lewing of the 45-year-old matron.
The extra space not only gives the bank plenty of room to grow, it also makes way for more community interaction. A recent open house featured music by the Montana ShamRockers, and Lewing envisions offering meeting spaces to community groups in the future.
The move represents another way Valley Bank is bucking industry trends. Most banks in the area have consolidated with larger institutions in the past decade: First Citizens was bought by Unity Bank; Security State is now part of First Interstate; and Ronan State Bank was purchased by Community Bank, and is now owned by Glacier Bank. The only two locally owned banks still standing are Valley Bank and Eagle Bank, which is owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Lewing’s career in banking parallels many of those changes. After graduating from the University of Montana in 2010 with a degree in business management he moved back to his hometown and went to work for Glacier Bank, working first as a teller, then in new accounts and eventually as a loan officer.
He was hired by First Citizens in 2018, and went to work in the same building he now occupies before moving to Valley Bank in 2021 as Polson branch manager.
Like his employers, Lewing has deep roots in the Mission Valley. He grew up in Polson, the son of Port Polson Players producers Neal and Karen Lewing, and married Polson native Holly Wing. The couple is raising their three children here, with the enthusiastic help of both sets of grandparents.
Lewing feels good about giving back to the town that raised him. The bank is active in community organizations and projects like the Coats for Kids program, offers student scholarships and helps support the Polson School District.
Banks across the nation played a vital role in keeping businesses afloat during the pandemic by dispersing federal Payroll Protection Program loans and helping individuals and small businesses meet their financial obligations despite the shutdown. “To have something of that enormity come down the pike and be able to help out was intensely rewarding,” Lewing says.
“That’s what it’s all about – supporting the people who are supporting you,” he added. “And to be able to do that in my own hometown for a locally owned company – it doesn’t get any better than that.”