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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Bridgeport to Lose Its Last Bank

Services: B of A officials say the branch doesn't do enough business. Angry residents contend the town will suffer as money, power flow south to Mammoth Lakes.

August 15, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — Locals consider it a blessing, the solemn isolation this town enjoys in California's eastern outback.

Tucked between the snowy Sierra and the deserts of Nevada, Bridgeport is a place where nobody locks their doors--or their cars, for that matter. Far from the urban tumult, the only municipal noise of note is the moo of cattle that sometimes cozy up to the three-block-wide downtown.

But that very distance from the woes of city life could soon prove a curse to the good folks of Bridgeport. Come the last week of September, this town of 500 will be without a bank.

After half a century of service--and to the considerable consternation of just about everyone in Bridgeport--the Bank of America branch will shut down Sept. 29. What might be a small inconvenience in more crowded communities is a real dilemma here.

To reach another bank, residents of Bridgeport will face a 120-mile round trip whether they choose to go north or south on U.S. 395. That can chew three hours out of any summer day. But in the cold, long winters of the Eastern Sierra, such a drive is arduous, even dangerous.

If residents choose to head south to Mammoth Lakes, they will have to climb two of the highest highway passes in the Sierra--8,138-foot Conway Summit and equally nasty Deadman's Summit, which is only 10 feet lower.

To the north, there are several banks in Gardnerville, Nev., but that route, too, is formidable, featuring a virtual slalom run along the East Walker River, a narrow gorge that a few winters ago was closed for months by an avalanche.

Faced with these unhappy prospects, just about everybody in town--from the gas station owner to the grocer and campground and motel managers--is spitting mad.

"This is another example of how corporate America cares about nothing but the bottom line," said Albert Pegorare from behind the trays of boneless rump roast and ground seasoned meatloaf at his butcher's shop on Main Street.

"Someone is sitting in a big glass tower in North Carolina making these decisions," he said. "And a whole lot of folks are hurting because of it."

The move by Bank of America is one of many branch closures, job cuts and cost-saving measures adopted in the months since it merged with NationsBank and moved the corporate headquarters from San Francisco to Charlotte, N.C.

Bank of America officials say the Bridgeport bank simply wasn't doing enough business to justify its continued operation. Attempts to find another bank willing to take over in Bridgeport failed.

"This is always a hard decision to make, but we are a retail business in a very competitive industry," said Missy Pace, a Bank of America spokeswoman in San Francisco. "I'm from a small town in Mississippi, so I can empathize. We tried to get another bank to come in. We really didn't want to leave them in the lurch."

To ease the pain in Bridgeport, Bank of America has agreed to start a daily courier service that will shuttle noncash deposits to a branch in Mammoth Lakes. Merchants in Bridgeport say that won't help much. Many do most of their business in cash and make daily deposits at the local bank.

"This will mean three hours out of my day, every day, versus five minutes," said John Simpson, owner of Bridgeport Texaco.

Simpson offered to add on to his station, which already features a minimarket and Taco Bell, so the community could have a banking mini-branch to provide some measure of personal service. The idea was rejected.

The fallout will spread beyond Bridgeport. Residents in the tiny towns of Coleville and Walker also depend on the bank. Lots of customers travel up from Lee Vining, which doesn't have its own branch. Troops from the nearby Marine Corps mountain warfare training center, hidden in a valley at the eastern entrance to Sonora Pass, do their banking in Bridgeport.

"The economic engine of the north county is going to be severely impaired," said Ed Inwood, a Mono County supervisor. "That's what frosts me about this whole thing."

But there's more at stake, some locals say, than just a bank. There's a nagging concern that the pullout by Bank of America might just be the start of a slide that could signal the end of Bridgeport's days as the government seat of Mono County.

Though the Superior Court, sheriff, jail and many other county services are based in Bridgeport, more than half the county's population now lies in the vacation mecca of Mammoth Lakes. Inwood said shifting the county seat south is highly unlikely, but locals aren't consoled.

"Probably 90% of people at the district attorney's office live in Mammoth," said Jim Reid, Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce president and owner of Rhino's Bar and Grill as well as a sports store featuring fly-fishing gear. "There's a lot of powerful people who live down there. Sure, they'd be happy to take the county seat."

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