Our hometown bank rescues workforce

Laure Folland, owner of Ambrosia on The Square at Lake Sumter Landing, praised Citizens First Bank for helping her specialty store obtain a loan through the Payroll Protection Program.

Citizens First Bank saved nearly 10,000 jobs by securing stimulus loans for small businesses deeply affected by the protective statewide executive order that shut down or limited business activity in and around The Villages. The hometown community bank stepped in to help 910 small businesses obtain $105 million in stimulus loans during Phase I and II of the Payroll Protection Program authorized in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that President Donald J. Trump signed into law. The forgivable loan, if used mostly for payroll purposes, became a lifeline for the eight employees at Jewelry Design at Southern Trace Plaza and La Plaza Grande.

“Somehow this bank managed to be a bank, but also have an amazing heart,” said Jay Gulati, the stores’ owner.

The bank mobilized with the goal of supporting The Villages small-business community even before the president signed the CARES Act, said Lindsey Blaise, president and CEO of the hometown community bank.

“As a local small business, we understand firsthand how important it is to continue serving our customers and providing for our employees,” said Blaise, who also serves on the Florida Bankers Association board of directors. “That’s why we worked so hard to get our local businesses access to the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program.”

Citizens First staff members coalesced into an emergency response team and worked after hours and on weekends to notify small businesses about the stimulus opportunity and then helped them file the application and supporting documents, Blaise said.

“I am so grateful and proud of our team that worked around the clock to support our community,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of my team. It is overwhelming how much we can accomplish in such a short period of time. I’m so fortunate to work side by side with them not only in times like these, but every day, too.”

The number of loans the bank secured impressed Alex Sanchez, president and CEO of the Florida Bankers Association.

“Wow,” he said. “Lindsey and her team have done an excellent job helping small businesses. It’s an incredible number and incredible number of small businesses that she and her team helped.”

Florida ranked second behind California with 222,570 payroll stimulus loans approved as of May 8, Sanchez said.

“It’s because of bankers like Lindsey working very hard,” he said. “It put Florida No. 2 in the country. Isn’t that great news?”

The stimulus loan through Citizens First enabled the Purple Pig, a specialty gift, home decor and pet supplies retail store at Lake Sumter Landing, to keep 10 employees on its payroll.

“Citizens came through; they rock, they really do,” said store owner Debbie Heiner, of the Village of Caroline. “I’m able to pay all my employees their full salaries. So everybody is getting paid whether they’re working or not.”

Many of the loan recipients in The Villages like Ambrosia on the Square, an “all-things Florida” specialty gift store at Lake Sumter Landing, learned about the stimulus program either through the bank’s outreach or notices through The Villages Commercial Property Management Division.

“They were very forthcoming with emails prior to this coming,” said Laure Folland, owner of the specialty gift store. “They were able to prepare us and to get the paperwork together for what was to come. They knew what was at stake for the community.”

But that response is what Folland expects since establishing a business relationship 10 years ago with Citizens First.

“I’m so appreciative for what they do on a daily basis and how they helped us out,” Folland said. “They’re so sweet over there. I can’t say enough about how the bank stayed open during all of this. This is what community is all about. Talk about people working on the front lines.”

Not every business was a customer prior to securing a stimulus loan through Citizen First.

Gulati retained his relationship with a Leesburg bank when he relocated his first Jewelry Design store around 20 years ago to La Plaza Grande.

That bank told Gulati to look elsewhere for advice, since it declined to participate as a PPP lender.

“I was discouraged to say the least,” Gulati said. “Around that time, I got an email from CPM about all the assets it had put into place. They suggested reaching out to the bank even if you don’t have a banking relationship with them. So I asked myself, ‘What do I have to lose?’”

Two days later, at 7 p.m. on a Friday, Shannon Shiver, Citizens’ vice president and community banking manager, contacted Gulati to guide him through the application process.

“I want to tell you, for someone who was not a bank customer, she worked with me on a Friday night and Saturday morning,” he said. “The whole process was wrapped up in 10 days. It’s because of that, of course, we opened on (May 4). I just felt so touched by what happened. I not only opened a PPP account, but moved my business banking relationship over to them.”

Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.