Despite its name on an arena and convention center, its locations in three states and $1.1 billion in assets, Alerus Financial is one of the little guys, according to a senior director.

"In the scheme of things, we would be considered a relatively small community bank," said Karl Bollingberg, director of banking services at the Grand Forks-based company. "We like to consider ourselves a Main Street bank rather than a Wall Street bank."

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Away from Wall Street seems to be the place regional institutions want to be. The public mood has been sour toward national institutions at least since the financial crisis and bail-outs of late 2008, and it has not improved with the occupy movements and a Nov. 5 national Bank Transfer Day.

Such times could explain why firms such as Alerus and other regional banks want to be small.

Small movement

Jeff Peterson, Grand Forks branch manager for Gate City Bank, said that he did not remember a time in 28 years of banking when he was aware of such strong dissatisfaction with banks.

"Not to this level," he said. "I can tell you that we have seen an uptick in business and a lot of it is coming from larger banks."

Gate City, with 32 branches in North Dakota and Minnesota, is similar in size to Alerus with its level of assets. It, too, projects the image of a community bank, Peterson said.

The bank has not tried to grab customers from big banks, but some new customers have been up-front about their dissatisfaction with their banks, according to Peterson.

"A lot of times they volunteer their current banks," he said. "We're not actively trying to court them beyond our normal course of business."

Gate City's assets in the past three years have grown from $1.146 billion in 2009 to $1.216 billion in 2010 to $1.345 billion today, according to Peterson.

Smaller still

If some consumers are focused on small as better, another option for them is credit unions.

"When people come to us, I guess the word we get is, 'We know who they are,'" said Barbara McWaters, president of Aggasiz Federal Credit Union in Crookston.

Her bank does only a fraction of the business of Gate City or Alerus, and has 1,400 to 1,500 members and $11 million in assets, McWaters said.

Jeff Olson of the Credit Union Association of the Dakotas said that his group participated in a survey by its national organization to determine the effect of the Nov. 5 Bank Transfer Day and estimated a gain of 100 members and $200,000 in deposits. He also estimated that his group's members gained 1,700 new customers between Sept. 27 and Nov. 2.

Olson said his association did not actively pursue new customers, but wanted to make its members aware of the movement.

"We just wanted to get our credit unions reacting," he said.

Small change

Bankers, however, do not say that they are noticing a big shift in customer preferences, regardless of the national mood.

"I would say we're not seeing this flood of people saying get me away from larger banks," Bollingberg said.

Alerus has had strong asset growth in the past three years, expanding from $700 million in assets in 2008 to $1.1 billion today. However that is due as much to acquisitions and natural growth as it is to sentiment against its competitors, Bollingberg said.

If people have not migrated in droves from large institutions to small in this region, it is in part because they were with small banks to begin with, according to Don Forsberg, executive vice president of Independent Community Banks of North Dakota.

"Most of the largest institutions don't do business in North Dakota, with a couple of exceptions," he said.

Although national banks have not made deep inroads into North Dakota, community banks have felt pressure to increase their services if they wanted to stay competitive and increase their size if they wanted to stay profitable, particularly as new requirements have added to business costs, according to Forsberg.

"Community banks found out that they had to grow if they wanted to stay viable," he said.

The balance between staying small enough to provide personal service and growing large enough to serve customers with a variety of products is something regional banks have to negotiate.

"There are obvious benefits of banking with a larger bank just because of their scale," said Lisa Artz, executive vice president of marketing for Choice Financial. But customers still appreciate small firms.

"In general, that is a common trend that consumers are looking for more personal relationships," she said.

Christopher Bjorke is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.