First Bank Score: Golf Pairing Leads to Ace for Southern Pines
Pat Corso had no ulterior motive when he invited First Bancorp President and CEO Richard Moore to play in the annual Sandhills Community College scholarship golf tournament last September.
"I knew that Richard used to play in golf events here," said Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress. "It was about renewing relationships. It wasn't a conscious gathering of people to talk about anything."
In fact, Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill missed the group's tee time because of an earlier commitment.
"It wasn't a day that we had planned to recruit First Bank," McNeill said. "It was a social golf outing and nothing more."
So there they were, standing on a tee box at Mid Pines Golf Club, when Moore said that the Troy-based bank was experiencing growing pains and thinking about relocating its corporate headquarters.
"When that day comes," McNeill told Moore, "we'd love for you to consider Southern Pines."
"That day" came Tuesday, when First Bancorp announced that it plans to move its headquarters to the former Hobbs Upchurch & Associates building in downtown Southern Pines. The bank last week purchased the building for $2.65 million.
Fred Hobbs, co-owner of Hobbs Upchurch and a former state senator, said a member of the First Bancorp Board of Directors broached the subject late last year at the end of a business discussion.
"He just said they were talking about trying to find a new location for the executive team," Hobbs said. "It took all of three minutes. The executive team came to look at the building earlier this year, but they had looked at other buildings and some land.
"They had several options on the table and picked one."
The announcement came after the Moore County Board of Commissioners and Southern Pines Town Council on Tuesday each approved an economic development grant - a combined $27,000 a year for 10 years - to help defray the bank's moving costs. The county will pay $15,000 a year for 10 years, the town, $12,000.
Moore was vacationing with his family Thursday and unavailable for comment.
Moore County officials have subtly tried to recruit First Bank for years, and they agree that it took a team effort to make the deal happen so quickly once they learned earlier this year that the bank was serious.
"Richard called me in January and said the bank was interested," Corso said. "That was the trigger. It was time to start lining up the town and the county, because we needed both for this to work. It wouldn't work with one doing it and the other not doing it."
Added McNeill, "We knew there was a short window of opportunity to make this project occur."
Town and county officials enlisted the help of Southern Pines businessman George Little, who had experience with incentives from doing economic development work for North Carolina under former Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.
"This kind of opportunity comes around once in a lifetime," Little said. "When Richard laid out the bank's plan, I thought it was reasonable. We sat down and talked about it. If we didn't offer incentives, we wouldn't be in the ballgame. That's the nature of business today.
"I really feel good because it worked out."
Corso said local officials had several "healthy discussions about the pros and cons of incentives and other issues."
"This was unprecedented territory for all of us," he said. "George had been in this battle before. He gave us sound advice. I think his experience was invaluable to the process."
McNeill and Corso also credited Hobbs for expediting the deal.
"Outside of selling his building, Fred really felt this was an incredible opportunity for the town and the county," Corso said. "He did everything he could to ensure that First Bank came to Southern Pines."
McNeill called the availability of an existing 21,000-square-foot building "critical."
"It fit First Bank's needs," he said.
The bank has its largest deposit base - more than $420 million - in Moore County. That money is spread among its 11 branches in the county.
The bank already operates its facility management, legal division and mortgage loan origination operations in Moore County, where it also has a training facility. Some of those operations will be consolidated at the bank's new headquarters.
"Our bank has grown dramatically over the past few years," Moore said Tuesday in a statement, "and this new location will help us better serve our customers going forward."
One final hurdle remains. The bank must receive federal and state regulatory approval to move its headquarters, so there is no time frame for when the move will occur.
Local officials are also sensitive to how the news is being received in Troy, where town officials have been lobbying the state's fourth-largest bank for weeks to keep all its operations there. The bank indicated it would keep 150 of its 190 headquarters jobs in Troy.
"I'm glad First Bank chose to keep it in the region rather than going to an urban setting," McNeill said. "They easily could have gone to Greensboro or Raleigh."
Corso said selecting "rural North Carolina is an anomaly these days," even though the bank was founded in Troy.
"They've made a positive statement about their commitment to rural North Carolina," he said. "I think it's a win-win for both counties. Montgomery gets to keep most of what it had, and we get the headquarters for a publicly traded company."
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or tnatt@the
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