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The front lobby and foyer received a much needed remodel which now offers customers more privacy and a comfortable waiting area with a flat screen television. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

Newport’s Central Bank celebrates renovation as ‘recommitment’

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Newport’s Central Bank celebrates renovation as ‘recommitment’
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

It’s no small challenge for a business, especially a financial institution, to survive an economic depression and a recession, massive construction of a major highway interchange and an apparent robbery from one of history’s most infamous mobsters.

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But Central Bank in Newport has done just that since opening its doors in 1920 and continues to grow.

The community bank recently underwent an extensive remodel which gave the foyer, teller stations, drive-thru area and the exterior a facelift, an undertaking location manager Barbara Lacher said shows a recommitment to their clients.

“This building is an important part of this community’s growth and history,” she said. “This is a celebration of the new look but also an important reminder of our recommitment to our customers and to this community.”

It began in 1920 in a cramped 225-square-foot corner of a brick building that still sits at Hastings Avenue and 21st Street in Newport.

The bank, originally named Farmers Terminal State Bank because its main clientele were employees at the nearby Farmers Terminal Packing Company, was one of many tenants in the building. The bank’s original entrance faced Hastings Avenue and over the years shared walls with a restaurant, a ballroom, pool room, doctor’s office and a bar.

“I remember the bank took up about a quarter of the whole main floor,” former president Milt Klohn said in an interview. “Up front there was the old vault. And when it was pay day that small lobby was packed.”

Shortly after the bank opened, the meat packing company filed for bankruptcy and the bank, while not strictly serving those employees, was able to facilitate more accounts from area residents.

“It was the only bank in the area at the time,” Milt’s wife Dorothy Klohn said. “It was the only bank serving Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, basically the whole county.”

Dorothy’s father, Thomas H. Toss, started working at the bank shortly after it opened and would eventually become the chief executive officer.

“He was a bank cashier,” Dorothy said of her father, a World War I veteran. “One day he saw the bank and walked in asking for a job. He was told to go home and get cleaned up and then come back.”

Toss quickly moved through the ranks and made a name for himself as an honest banker who would go out of his way to help the clients.

“He was just a good guy,” Milt said of his father-in-law. “From the day that I worked there until the day he died, he was always great to work with.”

Toss ran the bank until his retirement in 1956 when Milt took over.

As technology in the 1960s continued to develop, the invention of the computer revolutionized the banking industry. Once an all paper operation, Central Bank incorporated its first computer in 1971 and shortly thereafter went all digital.

“We used to just hand out bank statements right in the lobby,” Milt said, a practice that does not occur in today’s banks. “We would hand write deposits and just give them to the customer.”

The lax system of keeping records proved faulty a time or two and the Klohn’s remembered an instance when one woman accused the bank of stealing her money.

“She came in and said the bank was cheating her out of her money and was telling everyone in the community, too,” Milt said. “She couldn’t understand why money was being withdrawn and no statement was available.”

It turned out the woman’s husband was writing checks and cashing them at local bars.

“I told her that she had to go back to everyone she told that we were stealing her money that it was not true,” Milt said. “And she did. Back then word of mouth was very important.”

The “sloppy system” of keeping records, Milt added, has changed dramatically since then.

“It was just a casual way of banking back then,” he said. “It’s very different now and for the better. It has improved drastically.”

The small community-focused bank acquired an impressive client list over the years, and in 1977 expanded the operation. The two-story addition not only gave the bank more room to operate their growing business but also was the first move in acquiring the entire building.

The expansions also installed a four-stall drive-thru lane, a feat that was not common at that time in Minnesota.

“We had the biggest drive-thru in the Twin Cities,” Dorothy said.

The bank fell on hard times briefly in 1999 when it closed, but reopened a year later when Southview Bank in South St. Paul purchased the property.

Over the years, the bank merged with others and acquired new names; from Farmers Terminal State Bank to a brief stint as Town and Country Bank to Mid America Bank by the late 1980s. It was purchased by Norwest Bank in 2009 and renamed Central Bank.

While working as a certified public accountant and vice president for Norwest Bank, the Klohn’s son, Chris, who previously worked at Central Bank when he was first starting out in the industry, was called to run the operation.

“It got my interest up for sure,” Chris said about Norwest’s involvement. “They called me up and said ‘You have to come back.’’’

Now the senior vice president and CPA for Central Bank, Chris said he is amazed at how things have come full circle.

Mobster run-in

Part of Central Bank’s rich history in the community of Newport involves a supposed robbery by one of the mob’s most notorious criminals: John Dillinger.

While conflicting reports, Milt said, put him in another state at the time of the robbery, the incident, whether it was really Dillinger or not, has made for a longstanding urban legend among bank employees.

In the early 1930s, the Twin Cities was inundated with corruption, Milt said. Dubbing the time a different kind of “roaring thirties,” the young banker recalled hearing stories of Dillinger hiding out in St. Paul and Mahtomedi.

Dorothy’s father was working the day that Dillinger supposedly sauntered into the bank wearing a stolen uniform from the nearby meat packing company.

“My father had gone out to lunch and asked a friend of his to watch the bank,” she recalled of the afternoon in March 1933. “(Dillinger) was dressed in a meat packing uniform and asked for the cash.”

Roughly $7,500 dollars was stolen from the bank, an amount that would have been worth around $100,000 today. While it has not been verified that Dillinger was, in fact, the robber that stole from Central Bank, the Klohn’s remain convinced that it was.

“I’m sold on the fact that he did rob this bank,” Milt said. “I do believe he was here.”

‘Recommitting’ to community

Earlier this summer, Central Bank underwent yet another expansion of sorts and a remodel that Lacher says not only shows a desire to adapt to current times but also a recommitment to their clients.

In June, crews began what Lacher called a “hard remodel,” tearing down walls and gutting the interior to open up the foyer and teller stations.

“We were open for all three months of hell,” Lacher said of the process. “There was plastic sheeting everywhere but the important thing was we never closed. And our clients were happy that we didn’t close.”

The partition wall between the front tellers and the back drive-thru area was taken down to create a more open work space.

The addition of a conference room allows lenders and employees deal with customers in a more private setting and a waiting area complete with seating, a fireplace and flat screen television gives customers a comfortable area to relax.

“It was all about providing even better customer service,” Lacher said. “This was a recommitment to our customers that gives them full access to our services and lets us conduct business even better.”

While the remodel inconvenienced some customers, Lacher said the majority of customers are thankful for the updates.

“Some have even said ‘It’s about time,’” Senior Vice President of Retail Banking Terry Engfer said. “This is a history-rich part of this community and the remodel is just another way of reconnecting with that.”

The night drop access was also made more convenient for customers, Lacher said. Before clients would drive up to the bank and have to get out of their car. Now they have a dedicated drive-up box to deposit their items.

The outside of the building was also repainted and the awnings were installed.

“People often wondered what was up with the blue awnings,” Lacher laughed. “Now they are more functional and the color is more organic.

“Our main focus is and always has been providing excellent customer service to all our loyal clients,” Lacher added. “And we are now even more dedicated to serving them.”

To celebrate the remodel of Central Bank, all customers and members of the general public are invited to an open house Friday at the bank, 2104 Hastings Ave. For details, call 651-256-7250 or visit the website, www.centralbank.com.

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Emily Buss
Emily Buss joined the South Washington County Bulletin in February 2013. She covers local government in Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport, along with other general assignment reporting. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communications from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
(651) 459-4629
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