A new use for a Merced landmark

DA County Bank-small size

I went to the dedication of the new Merced County District Attorney office Friday, November 18 on Main Street in downtown Merced.  I’ve been to a number of these events over the years.  For a while, my attendance was required as CEO of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce. 

After leaving the Chamber in 2007, I try to make a few of these events when my schedule permits.

I didn’t want to miss this dedication because the new office for the staff of the County District Attorney is the former corporate headquarters of County Bank.

I was happy to see this once magnificent structure become a useful building once again.  It’s great to see the building be put back to good use.

Aware of the office space challenges District Attorney Larry Morse, II has coped with since taking office, I was happy to see the needs of Morse and his staff be met with this office building.

Still, there was a sadness as memories of the once financially strong and community proud County Bank cast a pall over the festivities much like the threatening clouds that occasionally obscured the sun on that brisk November Friday.

County Bank logo-thumb-200x93-16115
County Bank logo-thumb-200x93-16115

Most of us know the story.  Government banking regulators closed County Bank in February 2009.  The California Department of Financial Institutions appointed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) as receiver. 

FDIC entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with Westamerica Bank.  Employees who worked for County Bank lost their jobs.

The community of Merced lost a generous benefactor that touched practically every non-profit organization in the communities where a County Bank branch was located.

A Merced Sun Star article at the time of the closure noted that in 2007, County Bank had donated over one million dollars throughout the area served by the institution.

It was all gone.  The Main Street headquarters was locked.  While many families were already feeling the impact of the financial crisis, the closing of the County Bank building downtown made it very real. 

Merced County was hard hit with the highest unemployment rate in the state.  Poverty was common.  The community spirit suffered a tough punch.

Slowly, the rebuilding of our community started.  Westamerica took over some of the former County Bank branches. 

Other banks previously fearful to come into County Bank territory were now opening branches here. These new neighbors hired many former County Bank employees.

The County of Merced purchased the downtown headquarters as part of the liquidation of the Banks’ assets. 

The DA’s office got approval to make the move, consolidate several offices in the courthouse district, and embark on a plan that culminated with the dedication ceremonies held during the lunch hour on Friday.

The situation is not perfect.  A business tenant generating private sector jobs and paying property taxes would have been welcomed.  But these are difficult times for the local economy.

A win is a win, and the District Attorney’s office now housed in the former County Bank building is a win we can accept.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.