When notorious crook Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Sutton, who died in 1980, denied saying it, but who knows whether he was telling the truth? The guy was a thief.

Similarly, when readers ask me why banks continue to open brick-and-mortar branches in Plymouth like they’re Christmas pop-up stores, my answer is: Because that’s where their customers want to go. Even in an age of friction-free financial transactions and attractive online rates, it sometimes makes sense to interact with a human in the flesh.

Online-only banks are convenient and usually offer better savings rates because they have less overhead. But that might not be enough reason to abandon physical banking altogether. A U.S. News & World Report piece from a while back summed up some of its advantages. For example, if you have a complex issue, a face-to-face might be better for your blood pressure than an annoying website chat. (“I would be happy to assist you with that after 45 minutes of mind-numbing back and forth messaging. How is your day going so far?”) If you need a loan – and please don’t get one to buy a ridiculously large pickup you can’t afford – a person might be more helpful than an online submission that only digests raw numbers.

Still, it does seem like a lot of banks have been sprouting up across town – even faster than those ugly self-storage centers. That’s not happening in cities and towns where economic growth is stagnant. Consider the influx a sign of the town’s potential.

Work is underway on a Chase bank branch on Commerce Way. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

The numbers and locations of Plymouth branches can change quickly – part of an ongoing consolidation in the industry. The last time I checked there were nine banks – with a 10th on the way. Between them, they have 15 branches here. On top of that, there are four credit unions, and more ATMs than Taylor Swift hits.

One area in particular – Commerce Way, which stretches from Route 80 to Cherry Street – is turning into Plymouth’s Financial Row. The centerpiece is the soon-to-open Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, even though it’s at the entrance to the Cranberry Crescent shopping center off Route 80. The name may sound old-school, but the building could be the town’s most interesting contemporary commercial structure. It’s striking, and a refreshing change from boring boxes. (Maybe Plymouth Independent architecture expert Bill Fornaciari will weigh in on this.)

A nickel’s throw from Cape Cod 5, North Easton Savings Bank is readying for its opening. (The bank will close its location on Pilgrim Hill Road once the new branch is ready.)  

The Commerce Way corridor is also home to Santander and Harbor One. Between those two, construction on a Chase bank has started.

On Long Pond Road, work is underway on a new Bridgewater Credit Union office.

Let’s not forget Eastern Bank, either. It’s the largest community bank based in Massachusetts, with 97 branches. Eastern closed its downtown location during the pandemic – leaving a gaping hole that has yet to be filled – but the West Plymouth Square branch does brisk business. It’s close enough to Commerce Way to count as part of that burgeoning banking cluster.

“We continue to see brick-and-mortar being extremely important,” said Barbara Heinemann, Eastern’s executive vice president of consumer banking.

While acknowledging the obvious – “a migration of transactions to online and mobile” – Heinemann said that consumers, especially small-business owners, value an in-person connection. It’s here’s to stay, she said, no matter how fast or far technology advances.

“Decisions are made locally by people that understand the market and understand what’s going on in the community,” she said.

Then there’s the “gathering place” aspect of being in a physical place. “We have customers that will go in on a Saturday and they’ll meet someone else that they know from the community,” Heinemann said. “They’ll sit down and hang out for a bit and have a conversation.”

Imagine, a conversation instead of endless text flurries.

Another view of the Cape Cod 5 building under construction. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

Matt Burke, Cape Cod 5’s chairman and CEO, also has reason to be bullish on in-person banking, especially in Plymouth – the Kingston resident’s commute is about to get shorter, at least on some days. But his enthusiasm for the town extends beyond the prospect of saving on gas. When it opens in March, the bank, with about 50 employees, will be a linchpin of the Cape Cod 5 network. Burke refers to it as a “hub.”

“Customer-facing commercial lenders, residential mortgage loan officers, and wealth management folks” are among those who will work out of the building, he said.

“We’ve grown pretty organically over the years,” he added. “We’re now end-to-end on Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Wareham.”

Establishing a bigger presence in Plymouth, with its expanding mix of potential residential and business customers, was the next logical step for Cape Cod 5, Burke said. It already has 25 branches – including one at the Village Green in The Pinehills that just relocated to the massive Rowen building – and about 6,000 Plymouth customers.

Community banks like Cape Cod 5 and Eastern are also constantly working to enhance online and mobile services.

“It’s a fine balance between investing in technology and investing in physical growth,” Burke said.

HarborOne has a branch on Commerce Way. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

Striking that balance won’t be easy. While an “everybody knows your name” setting is nice, the reality is that most people have relationships with multiple savings institutions. If I’m piling up money for a down payment on a house, it’s probably going to sit in an account at characterless online institution like Synchrony or Ally, not a friendly community bank. And many customers, especially younger ones, prefer to log in rather than walk in for just about any transaction. (When was the last time you needed to go to a bank to cash a check? When was the last time you even needed a lot of cash?)

But that doesn’t mean the banking boomlet in Plymouth is going to be short-lived. Banks are conservative by design – they don’t open buildings without first going through a rigorous feasibility process.

“Many years ago, when the ATMs were first introduced, people were saying bank branches are going to go away,” said Eastern Bank’s Heinemann, “and that didn’t happen. We continue to see branches as being very important.”

To submit your business news for consideration, see the “Send us your business news” note at the top of the Business section. Mark Pothier can be reached at mark@plymouthindependent.org. One other thing: Unlike our news stories, this column sometimes includes the author’s opinions.

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