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Bank Notes, Part 2: Local trends and impact

Brian Hartz

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Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy with (right) Kenny, the Chief's Corner handyman. Valley Bank helped the Brayboys with their PPP application. Photo: Corey Givens Jr.

Editor’s note: This two-part series features national and local leaders of Valley Bank in a discussion with the Catalyst about economic and social trends that have emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic. Part 1 focused on national and state perspectives, while Part 2 takes a look at the role banks like Valley have played in keeping local businesses afloat during the crisis. 

Like many northeasterners, New Jersey-based Valley Bank has made Tampa Bay its second home, acquiring Clearwater-based USAmeriBank in 2014 and significantly expanding its presence here in the years that followed. And when it saw what the Covid-19 crisis was doing to the community’s hospitality industry, the bank stepped up.

Jeff Armstrong, Valley Bank’s Pinellas County senior vice president, told the Catalyst he was alarmed when he heard that restaurants like Chiefs Creole Café in Midtown were struggling with their applications for the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Longtime owners Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy had been working with “one of the ‘too big to fail banks,’” Armstrong said, and went more than a month without any updates about the status of their PPP funds.

“There was desperation in the air, at this point,” Armstrong said. “This was the beginning of May, and the entire month of April had gone by and they had not gotten a response.”

Valley Bank President and CEO Ira Robbins, right, was recently in town to meet with leaders of the bank’s Tampa Bay operations, including Pinellas County Senior Vice President Jeff Armstrong, left. Photo courtesy of Valley Bank.

Armstrong got his team on the case on a Friday, and by the following Sunday evening they had gotten the Brayboys’ PPP application approved by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Within a week the restaurateurs had received the money that would help them keep their business alive.

“There’s an understanding that we are part of the community,” said Valley Bank President and CEO Ira Robbins, who was in town recently to meet with Armstrong and other team members in the Tampa Bay area. “More than 95 percent of local GDP growth is tied to bank lending. We are absolutely connected, so to get out of the pandemic, it’s going to involve us helping our local businesses.”

Valley Bank — which, in addition to New Jersey and Florida, also does business in New York and Alabama — has been extremely active in Pinellas County during the pandemic. It has helped 288 small businesses in the county obtain stimulus funds totaling more than $50 million. In the process, it ensured that 7,000 workers continued to receive paychecks.

“If you build your community, you’ll build your bank,” Armstrong said, citing lessons he learned early on in his career. “With Covid-19, we are rebuilding our communities and building our bank. When things aren’t going well, that’s the opportunity to lean in.”

Being an active PPP lender, Armstrong said, has been a win-win for Valley and the community.

“PPP has opened a lot of doors,” he said. “We’ve grown in Pinellas County by well over 10 percent.”

Today, exactly one year after the pandemic began to shut down businesses and schools across the country, evidence continues to accumulate that shows how critical PPP funds have been to the survival of small businesses across Florida. According to research compiled by PNC economist Abbey Omodunbi, 47 percent of Florida business leaders say they received PPP funding in 2020; of those, eight in 10 said the loans were “extremely important.” Omodunbi also found that four in 10 business leaders feel that obtaining a new PPP loan in 2021 will be extremely important to their business.

Armstrong said last spring and summer was a tiring time for Valley Bank’s Pinellas County staff members, with the sheer volume of PPP applications demanding long hours, even on nights and weekends. But the work, he said, turned into a “calling … a noble cause” that inspired him and his staff to go above and beyond the call of duty.

In addition to being an active PPP lender, Valley also supported charitable causes with its new Community Pledge Certificate of Deposit Program. The CD offered a market rate and Valley matched the interest with a direct donation to local community organizations that were providing relief in support of the COVID-19 pandemic. All told, the program, to date, has raised $527,000 for eight organizations across Florida, including Feeding Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Wave and the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.

If there’s a silver lining to the Covid-19 crisis, Robbins said, it’s that banks have gotten a chance to prove their worth as opposed to being viewed negatively, like they were in the recession of 2008-09.

“Look how long it took for an economic recovery thereafter when you made banks the bad guy,” he said. “So now you shift things and maybe work with banks and look what the economic recovery is going to look like this time. Public-private partnerships need to happen. We can’t alienate one another.”

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