A Banking Beacon in Flint

A Banking Beacon in Flint

 

Enter downtown Flint, Michigan, and one of the first things to catch your eye will be a large glowing sphere atop the building at 328 S. Saginaw St. This 2.5-ton Plexiglas ball corresponds to National Weather Service forecasts and its color changes accordingly—red for higher temperatures, blue for lower, yellow for status quo and blinking colors for rain or snow. It has been a landmark for Flint since it first lit up the skyline on August 30, 1956.

Enter downtown Flint, Michigan, and one of the first things to catch your eye will be a large glowing sphere atop the building at 328 S. Saginaw St. This 2.5-ton Plexiglas ball corresponds to National Weather Service forecasts and its color changes accordingly— red for higher temperatures, blue for lower, yellow for status quo and blinking colors for rain or snow. It has been a landmark for Flint since it first lit up the skyline on August 30, 1956.1

But beyond the weather, it’s been another important marker for the community. The site has been at the heart of the community’s banking for 145 years.

Citizens National Bank, a predecessor of FirstMerit Corp. and now part of Huntington, located its headquarters on the lot when it formed in 1871. The current building was completed in 1928 on the same spot, and the bank has had a strong presence ever since.2

After the Civil War, Flint’s lumber industry hit its peak, employing 8 percent of the town’s citizens. With resources dwindling and an economic shift imminent, local leaders knew that the diversification of industries would be beneficial to the community. They also saw that new banking institutions were necessary to support such growth. A consortium of community leaders, including William M. Fenton, William P. McCreery and local mill owners J.B. Atwood, J.W. Begole, William Hamilton and Alexander McFarlan, “widely known as among the first in the county of Genesee for probity and integrity,” helped organize Citizens National Bank with $50,000 in capital on January 10, 1871.3

Citizens opened for business on March 1. The bank’s founders commanded immense respect in the community and inspired confidence in the new venture, so much so that Citizen’s capital doubled in just three months.

McCreery had been a colonel in the war and mayor of Flint, while Begole would later serve as the governor of Michigan. Fenton served as Citizens’ first president. A true 19th-century renaissance man, Fenton had at times been a sailor, a lawyer, a real estate developer of Flint’s “Fenton Block,” a Civil War colonel who led his Union forces to numerous pivotal battle victories, mayor of Flint, lieutenant governor of Michigan and chief engineer of the Flint fire department. When he died from injuries sustained in this latter service in November 1871, most of the businesses in Flint closed and were draped in mourning to show respect.4

Citizens National Bank’s capital and reputation continued to increase, and one loan is especially worth mentioning. With an innovative idea to build a road cart with a spring seat, customer Billy Durant appealed to the president of Citizens in 1886 for a $2,000 loan, which was summarily approved. He used the funds to buy a patent and launch his business, later renamed Durant-Dort Carriage Company, which became the world’s largest. Today, Durant is more familiar for his role in co-founding another large carriage company known as General Motors.

A few years later, in 1890, Citizens bucked the trend in banking and shifted from a national to a state bank, renamed Citizens Commercial & Savings Bank. Despite this shift, Citizens, like many other banks expanded throughout the early 20th century, adding new branches and departments.

After becoming a holding company in 1980, Citizens Banking Corporation accelerated growth through mergers and acquisitions.5 One merger with Republic Bank in 2006 formed Citizens Republic Bancorp and doubled the size of the company. By the time it joined FirstMerit in 2013, despite troubles during the financial downturn of 2008-09, the bank had locations across much of Michigan and into Wisconsin and Ohio.6

Now part of Huntington, the bank’s original location on Saginaw Street and its iconic weather ball continue to shine bright on the skyline, welcoming Flint’s citizens to the day and the future—rain, snow or shine.

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The iconic weather ball on top of the Citizens Bank headquarters in Flint, Michigan, 2011
Courtesy of Michigan Municipal League/mml.org