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Hawkins County's two smallest towns prepare to lose their only bank

Jeff Bobo • Mar 15, 2018 at 5:42 PM

SURGOINSVILLE — Hawkins County's two smallest towns are losing their only banks in May, but neither mayor is willing take the bad news lying down.

Last year, First Tennessee announced it was merging with Capital Bank, which operates bank branches in both Bulls Gap and Surgoinsville.

Last month, First Tennessee sent letters to customers of both branches notifying them they’ll be closing as of May 25.

Surgoinsville Mayor Merrell Graham told the Times-News on Thursday that he has scheduled meetings with executives from two other banking institutions for later this month in hopes of selling Surgoinsville as a viable new location.

Bulls Gap Mayor Mike Solomon said he is asking First Tennessee to fast-track the sale or rental of the closing branch building. Solomon said there are already too many empty storefronts in Bulls Gap and they need to begin working immediately on filling this one.

A long history in both towns

Solomon noted that there’s been a bank in Bulls Gap for at least 120 years. Although the town’s population is currently less than 800, it’s been a busy railroad crossroads since the Civil War.

Hawkins County historian Rodney Ferrell noted that Surgoinsville has had a bank continuously almost as long as the town has existed.

In the early part of the 1800s, Surgoinsville was a prosperous farming community with a riverboat port, and the town was considered at one time as a possible Hawkins County seat. In the late 1800s, Surgoinsville was a booming "railroad town."

There's been a bank at the current location at the corner of Main Street and Bellamy Avenue since 1957 when it opened as the Holston Valley Bank.

Later it became First National Bank, and beginning in 1983, the bank changed names multiple times: First Commerce Bank, City and County Bank, Hamilton Bank, SunTrust Bank, Hawkins County Bank, Green Bank, and finally Capital Bank.

What were Capital Bank customers told?

Bulls Gap and Surgoinsville customers received a letter last month from First Tennessee regional executive Ali Ayea stating, “As part of this merger we’ve taken a look at all of our branches to make sure we’re well positioned to serve our customers when we bring 20 Capital Bank branches under the First Tennessee brand on May 29.”

Ayea further states that the Surgoinsville and Bulls Gap branches will close on May 25 at noon.

What does the bank mean to Surgoinsville?

Graham said the bank closure will be devastating to Surgoinsville, not only from the standpoint of convenience for its residents and local merchants, but also a stimulus for economic growth.

"I don't know how the town will manage without a bank," Graham said. “When we lost our doctor’s office the economic impact on Surgoinsville was enormous. The amount of traffic flowing through town dried up to almost nothing. This bank is really the heartbeat of our downtown.”

There's a petition drive in and around town expressing support for a new bank, and Graham said he will present those petitions to the prospective banks when he meets with them. Graham said the population in and around Surgoinsville can support a bank, and more. 

"When Food Country was considering opening a store here, I went riding with those people and we went all over the surrounding areas outside the city limits," Graham said. "Carters Valley, Stanley Valley, Caney Valley, Longs Bend, War Valley, Webster Valley — and they were blown away by how dense the population on the outskirts of Surgoinsville is. That's what I'm going to tell these people from the other banks. We're not just this little old town with 1,800 people. There's a whole lot more to this area than that."

Graham is also a business owner in Surgoinsville.

He added,"We're out here at this bank every day, and a lot of days twice a day just getting change. When you lose something that's used that much, that's a reason for people not to come into our town, and that's what's going to hurt us so bad."

It’s a major blow to Bulls Gap as well

Aside from the obvious economic impact, Solomon said the bank closure is also a major inconvenience to local residents, particularly the elderly who aren’t familiar or trustful of online banking options, and might have difficulty traveling to Rogersville, Greeneville or other locations to do their banking.

“We don’t want to see any business leave our community, but especially not a bank, and especially not the only bank in town,” Solomon said. “Pretty much everyone in town uses that branch. City Hall banks at that branch. The residents of Bulls Gap need a bank, and I’m going to do everything I can to recruit a replacement.”

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