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November 22, 2005

At least a half-dozen new branches of AmSouth Bank are coming to the Bradenton-Sarasota area in 2006, part of the bank's plan to open 54 branches in Florida next year.

The county's planning department Monday acknowledged that two more AmSouth locations are in the works locally. Future branches could appear in Bayshore Gardens and another location off State Road 64 is planned west of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.

The Birmingham, Ala.-based bank, with $51 billion in assets, will open a total of 64 branches next year. It appears federal regulators might be easing an October 2004 federal cease-and-desist order that put a major dent in the bank's expansion plans.

AmSouth has agreed to pay $50 million in fines in connection with a money laundering investigation. The bank has agreed to adopt new policies to ease the ban, but has not admitted nor denied any wrongdoing in the process.

The bank recently received federal approval for four new AmSouth branches that will open in the first quarter in 2006: two in Tampa, one in Fort Myers and a Tennessee branch. And at least 11 more branches are pending approval.

Earlier this month, The Herald reported that AmSouth has purchased the site of a former Denny's Restaurant at 5703 Manatee Ave. W. for $2.2 million.

"Your market (Bradenton-Sarasota) will see a half a dozen new branches in 2006," said Jerri Franz, senior vice president of public relations with AmSouth. "We will hold onto land that we have acquired until we are ready to turn the sites into branches next year." A relocation of the bank's Southwest Florida headquarters to Sarasota will be made early next year to give the bank a "signature presence in downtown Sarasota," Franz said.

There are already branches in Manatee County at 2100 Manatee Ave. W., 4501 Cortez Road, 5455 Tara Blvd., 5009 State Road 64 E. and 8455 Tuttle Avenue off of University Parkway.

There have been reports that AmSouth may be acquired by another Birmingham-based bank, Regions Financial Corp., which has a market capitalization of $15.1 billion and operates in 16 states. The possible acquisition could make Regions a big player in Manatee County. Regions currently has four Manatee County branches, which includes one north of the Manatee River in Ellenton.

Dan Chappie, senior vice president of Peninsula Asset Management Inc. in Bradenton, said that in order to compete more effectively, an eventual acquisition would be a good idea.

"Community banks and larger banks capture much of the market share," Chappie said. "A bank like AmSouth might be well served through merger or acquisitions."

AmSouth CEO and President C. Dowd Ritter gave a glimpse of what's to come at an investors' conference earlier this month in New York. "Florida has tremendous growth prospects," Ritter said.

With $8.7 billion in loans and $9.2 billion in deposits across the State of Florida, a larger push for more branches from a bank that currently is ranked fifth in market share across the state seems likely.

Derek Hong , senior vice president and portfolio manager with Clearwater-based Great Companies LLC, said that AmSouth's Florida franchise is more important than any other state in their franchise, including their home state of Alabama.

The bank has 685 branches in six states. And 221 of those branches, or more than a quarter of all their branches, are in Florida.

"The Florida franchise is growing faster and is the most attractive part of their overall footprint," Hong said. "The expiration of their order is a positive for AmSouth."

AmSouth has opened 81 branches in Florida since 2002.

What are people saying about mortgages today:

Rates on 30-year mortgages edged down last week to a seven-month low. Mortgage-giant Freddie Mac reported Thursday that 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages fell to 6.3 percent, down slightly from 6.31 percent two weeks ago. It put rates at the lowest level since they were at 6.24 percent the first week of March.

Bank of Hawaii, Central Pacific Bank, Territorial Savings Bank and Wells Fargo Home Mortgages all cut their 30-year mortgage rates to 5.75 percent this week.

Most people think of a mortgage as a means to an end. After all, you buy a house, not a home loan. But a mortgage is much more than the path to homeownership. It is a financial instrument that must be managed, just like any other financial investment.