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Becoming self-sufficient: New bank in Caledonia latest piece in decades of growth

 

Andy Johnson, president of the Caledonia branch of Bank of Vernon, welcomes guests on Wednesday to the grand opening of the branch on Wolfe Road. The branch is the first bank located in the town since 2006.

Andy Johnson, president of the Caledonia branch of Bank of Vernon, welcomes guests on Wednesday to the grand opening of the branch on Wolfe Road. The branch is the first bank located in the town since 2006. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Slim Smith

 

 

Vernon, Alabama, is only a dozen miles or so from Caledonia. 

 

Even so, it took the Bank of Vernon 11 years to cover that distance. 

 

Wednesday, bank officials, along with local and state government representatives and just about anybody who could sneak away from work for an hour, gathered at the new Bank of Vernon branch on Wolfe Road in Caledonia, which over the past 20 years has become the town's primary retail area. 

 

"We've got some great plans for the area and we appreciate the support of the people of Caledonia," Bank of Vernon CEO Andy Johnson said in a few brief remarks after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new branch bank. 

 

Bill Thompson, who lives in nearby Hamilton in Monroe County, dropped by to get a look at the new bank. 

 

"We come over here to Caledonia quite a bit, mainly to eat, but we still go to Columbus to grocery store and things like that," Thompson said. "But it's nice to have a bank here so close. I think they'll do pretty well, too." 

 

 

 

A growing community 

 

Caledonia had been without a branch bank for 15 years, when the First Columbus branch closed shop. 

 

But the arrival of a branch bank is merely the latest in a 20-year-period of growth, particularly retail growth. 

 

Brenda Willis, who will make her final official appearance as an alderman at next month's board meeting, began working on a list of all the new businesses and amenities that have arrived in the town since she since was first elected to the board 20 years ago. 

 

In fact, she was still working on the list as she arrived for Wednesday's ribbon-cutting, a list that had grown to more than more than 40 new arrivals -- everything from restaurants (five), dollar stores (two), beauty salons (three) and churches (two), as well as a full-service grocery store. The list also includes a variety of upgrades to existing properties, along with a YMCA, improvements and expansions at Ola J. Pickett Park and a new soccer complex currently being built near the park. 

 

"We've come so far," Willis said. "I think we have everything we need, at least the major things. We don't have to drive to Columbus for everything anymore." 

 

Willis, a retired teacher, attributes much of the growth to the success of the town's top-rated schools, including a new elementary school that opened in January to accommodate the town's growing population. 

 

The town has approximately 1,100 residents and may eventually annex some adjacent land that would bring another 300 into the town. An annexation proposal last year failed by a 3-2 vote of the board of aldermen, but there remains some sentiment for the move, said mayoral candidate Mitch Wiggins, who was among a handful of office-seekers to turn out for Wednesday's event. A new mayor and board will be chosen when the city holds its municipal elections on July 18. 

 

 

 

High expectations 

 

For Johnson and the Bank of Vernon, the town's steady growth has been on their radar for more than a decade. 

 

"It's a big step for us, our first branch bank," said Johnson, who has been with the bank for 20 years. "We've always had a good amount of business from this area and Steens and Hamilton. And this area is growing, and we saw this as a great opportunity. 

 

"We started working on this in 2006, and stayed with it even during the slow time in the economy," he added. "We kept pushing and pushing and finally got approval." 

 

The bank will feature four employees and will be open Monday through Friday. 

 

"We'll take deposits, make loans, do provide all the services with a personal touch, which we feel is really important," he said. 

 

Johnson said the company has high expectations for its first branch bank. 

 

"Right now, we have about $150 million in assets, which is a good size for a community bank with just one branch. Most banks our size have 10, maybe 15 branches," he said. "So our expectations are high. To put a number on it, we hope to get $30 million to $50 million in three years' times. We'll see." 

 

Both bank officials and residents noted the familiarity that exists between the two towns. 

 

"People in both towns know each other," Willis said. "We're not strangers." 

 

Then there is Bill Cook, who moved to Caledonia about a year ago from Lamar County, where he and his family had lived for more than 40 years. 

 

"We have a daughter and two grandchildren here, so when we retired and wanted to downsize, we decided to move to Caledonia. We built a house right next door to them." 

 

Cook had been a customer at Bank of Vernon for more than 40 years. 

 

"And the next thing you know, here they come with a branch bank," he said. "It makes it convenient. I don't have to drive over to Vernon to do my banking. Really, there are a lot of things here now. And having a bank, that's a big deal for a community."

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

 

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