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Web campaign boosts local banks over the big boys

A quirky, fast-spreading campaign that is encouraging Americans to move their money out of big banks and into community banks got its start during a wistful Christmastime discussion of "It's a Wonderful Life," the classic movie pitting a small-town banker against a fat cat.

That discussion led to the development of a Web site - - that helps people find banks in their communities instead of relying on the monolithic banks that were propped up by taxpayer bailouts, yet are still stingy with credit.

"It started over dinner, like many good things," said commentator Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post. "We were talking about what had happened with the recovery of Wall Street, but not of Main Street. . . . Unlike many dinner conversations, this time everyone followed through."

The Web site features a video - both charming and sharp-elbowed - and a tool that helps users find a nearby bank. Since it launched on Dec. 29, hundreds of thousands of people in more than half of the country's ZIP codes have used the site to search for a bank, Huffington said.

Community bankers couldn't be more thrilled.

Doug Manditch, chairman and chief executive of Hauppauge-based Empire National Bank, has long argued that the largest banks should be broken up, because they continue to take risks knowing taxpayers will bail them out again. "This effort, if it dents any of those banks, that's great," he said.

"My bankers are crazy for it," said Cam Fine, president and chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America.

Fine said the Web site and the movement it seems to be sparking were in the works already. He said banks with fewer than $1 billion in assets got 17 percent more deposits in 2009 from the year before. "I don't know if it's coming from the largest banks, but it's coming from somewhere," Fine said.

Kevin O'Connor, president and chief executive of Bridgehampton National Bank, said the Web site is "somewhat tongue-in-cheek and political," but it grabbed his attention.

"I don't know how effective it will be, but I hope it has some legs," he said.

And Claudia Pilato, vice president for marketing at the bank, said some potential customers have already called the bank, citing as inspiration.

It's too soon to know if any money has actually been moved from big banks to small ones.

The Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the largest financial companies, was sanguine about the campaign, noting that people change banks all the time, and that those decisions should be based on financial reasons rather than political ones.

"It's pretty easy to fault big institutions right now, but big institutions are integral to our economy," spokeswoman Elise Brooks said.

Huffington said big banks essentially used some of the bailout money to lobby against reforming the system, and did so effectively. "We can't keep waiting for Washington to do something," she said.

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