(Host) Alburgh isn’t the hopping place it was during its railroad heyday. But there’s always been somewhere to do banking in the small northwestern Vermont town that’s surrounded by Lake Champlain.
But that was threatened recently, when People’s United announced it would close its branch on Main Street.
As VPR’s Sarah Harris reports, townspeople quickly set out to preserve the important institution.
(Harris) When Terry Tatro and Irene Clarke learned that the bank in Alburgh was closing, they decided to do something about it.
(Tatro) "I was quite upset really. We need the bank in Alburgh for various reasons. I didn’t think they were treating us fairly. I wrote this letter to the little newspaper The Islander. Other people got involved and said, ‘We should start a citizens committee.’"
(Clarke) "The realization that the businesses here, they’re going to suffer. Even the bingo, you need change. You don’t want to drive 20 miles."
(Harris) So the "Find a Bank Committee" was born. Their goal: figuring out how to replace the People’s United branch.
Alburgh Town Clerk Carol Cleland agrees with the committee’s leaders that losing the bank would be a big blow because the town isn’t prosperous.
(Cleland) "If the bank closes, it’s a vital part of our community that’s going to be gone. Like he said, ‘What’s next?’ Are we gonna become a ghost town? You know we have, nothing!"
(Harris) The People’s United branch in Alburgh has a wide reach. The town does its banking there. People from North Hero and Isle La Motte rely on the Alburgh bank, as do summer communities.
There’s only one other bank in Grand Isle County, and it’s three towns away in South Hero.
The other closest bank is across the state line – and the bridge – in Champlain, New York. And the closest People’s United branch is on the other side of the lake, in Swanton.
For people who commute to work, banking in other towns isn’t too much trouble. But Irene Clarke says Alburgh has a significant elderly and low-income population, who don’t have access to transportation.
(Clarke) "We have sweet little ladies who get their $20 out to get their milk and bread and the things they need. And they’re not about to get in a car and drive 15 or 20 miles to a banking institution."
(Harris) So the committee started calling around to other banks, asking if they’d set up shop in Alburgh. They even considered other alternatives, like starting their own credit union and having a mobile bank come through town.
At first, People’s United wouldn’t sell the property to another financial institution. But the bank reversed course.
After an appraisal and a lot of looking, North Country Federal Credit Union answered the call. It’s based in South Burlington and has branches in other small communities. And the credit union is negotiating to buy the People’s United branch.
For Irene Clarke and Terry Tatro, who spearheaded the effort, North Country’s interest in Alburgh is a real relief. Having a place to do banking, they say, will help keep the town alive.
(Clarke) "I think the small towns in the state are at risk. I think the businesses have a hard time and they leave the small towns behind. But the small towns are our history. They’re our heritage. So they’re very important to keep alive and keep vibrant."
(Tatro) "If people have to go out of town to do their banking, they’re going to do other services out of town, also. Sooner or later, all you’re going to have left is a bedroom community. We’re close to that now. We wanna go the other way."
(Harris) People’s United expects to close its Alburgh branch March 30. The organizers say they hope the credit union can reopen not long after that.
For VPR News, I’m Sarah Harris.