Community First renovates building for new branch after busy pandemic year

Community First Bank couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy a vacant bank property at the intersection of Swift Boulevard and Jadwin Avenue in Richland.

It wasn’t looking to move but when its lease came due for renewal at 1060 Jadwin Ave., where it’s been located for 15 years, it made sense to buy instead of lease. A bonus is the property has more visibility.

“It was one of those no brainer decisions to do that,” said Jim Arneson, chief operating officer.

The bank bought the property at 1007 Jadwin Ave. for $1.3 million from Yakima Federal Savings & Loan last June and plans to spend $1 million in tenant improvements. A fall completion date is planned.

“We’re making an investment in Richland to stay,” Arneson said.

The bulk of renovation plans for the 7,200-square-foot building, built in 1970, are for exterior improvements to modernize the look of the building, though some modifications will be made inside.

“Like most construction projects, we’re watching material ordering right now with shortages and everything else, so we can get all materials when we need them. So far it’s looking pretty good,” Arneson said.

The building’s familiar brick work will remain, but most of the windows will be replaced and the addition of a larger vestibule on the Swift Boulevard side facing the intersection will have the appearance of a main entry, though there will be entrances on both sides.

The old mansard-style roof has been removed and new fascia will be installed around the upper portion that’s more in line with the neighborhood’s style. The branch is across the street from the new Richland City Hall and a multi-tenant building home to Jimmy John’s and TeaHaus.

“What you will see emerging is modern and in concert with those looks,” Arneson said.

The bank’s drive-thru area will be redesigned to match the main building.

MH Construction Inc. is the contractor. Archibald and Co. is the architect.

The larger branch will be able to accommodate additional staff, which is becoming increasingly necessary as Community First grows.

Post-PPP growth

Since Community First Bank’s 2016 merger with HFG Trust, the organization’s key growth metrics have been trending upward – and last year’s pandemic only increased the momentum.

The Kennewick-based bank, established in 1997, has more than doubled its employees since 2015, from 58 to 122.

It acquired a Berkley, California-based two-person firm in April 2021, Prime Wealth Management, an investment advisory firm with offices located in Berkeley, California, and Roseburg, Oregon.

As the bank headed into the pandemic, bank assets totaled $353 million and wealth management assets totaled $752 million.

Community First Bank is renovating the building at 1007 Jadwin Ave. in Richland with plans to open in the fall. It will close its the branch just down the road at 1060 Jadwin Ave. (Photo by Kristina Lord)

The coronavirus relief bill pumped money into the economy but first it flowed through banks.

“It’s really what set our growth in motion,” said Community First Bank CEO Eric Pearson.

Between 2019 and 2021, Community First Bank’s bank assets grew 65%, and HFG Trust’s wealth management assets by 45%.

Bank assets have increased 116% since 2015, totaling $583 million in 2021, up from $269 million in 2015.

Wealth assets under management soared 236% from 2015, totaling $1.1 billion, up from $325 million.

As the pandemic shutdowns took hold last year, Pearson worried about the fate of the government-backed Paycheck Protection Program, part of the federal coronavirus rescue plan, calling it a nerve-wracking time.

Would the government back the loans? Would it break the bank if it didn’t? There were a lot more questions than answers at the time, but Pearson said the bank and its board knew they had to step up for the community.

“The market was cratering and there were lots of concern about the economy and for us that’s of heightened concern. We have a lot of small business clients … and our core business is making loans on the bank side,” he said.

The bank geared up to handle the volume of requests for the loans and got to work, putting in long, un-bankerly hours.

Employees processed more than 1,000 PPP loans, with 680 in the first round.

“We thought we’d do $100 million loans at the time. We wound up with $330 million,” Pearson said.

Most have been forgiven, too.

Of those 1,000 loans, all but less than 20 have been forgiven, with some partially forgiven, Pearson said.

Looking ahead

The bank expects to see forgiveness for the majority of the second-round loans still on the books by the end of the third quarter.

“I’m hoping by the end of this year, we might only have 10 to 15 total PPP loans on our books. It’ll be the end of the PPP story. I can’t imagine another round coming,” Pearson said.

He called the program a success in spurring the economy. “(That money) is still out there,” he said.

The success of the bank’s efforts to secure PPP loans also had an unintended consequence – it gained the loyalty of new customers.

“We started winning business from clients who banked elsewhere,” Pearson said.

On the financial management side, under HFG Trust, customers sought advice and counsel on how to manage their money when the market turned turbulent, Pearson said. Its financial services arm also grew, with more money in the system and liquidity, thanks to the stimulus program.

Casting forward, Pearson said the organization will look at strategic acquisitional growth.

“It’s the most efficient way to expand,” he said, explaining it doesn’t take a lot of time, capital or technology to open a wealth management office. “It doesn’t take a lot of resources out of our market.”

He said continuing to diversify its revenue stream so there’s a good balance between wealth management, banking and mortgages also is key.

Pearson said the organization will remain measured in its approach to change but said its recent experience with being able to adapt rapidly, as was the case with processing the PPP loans, shows it can handle change just fine.

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