Questions and answers with community faces
If you’ve caught a movie at The Garden Theater, drank a pint at Stormcloud, or deposited a check at State Savings Bank (or Central State Bank) within the past month, then Blake Brooks has impacted your life. Brooks, who is CEO of the financial institution that now has branches in four locations throughout Benzie and Leelanau, spoke with The Current about what’s changed during his quarter-century at State Savings Bank, his role as co-investor of both the theater and the brewpub, what he loves most about living in Frankfort, and what the area needs most.
Betsie Current: You’ve been at State Savings Bank in Frankfort for 25 years, correct? How has SSB changed during that time? How has Frankfort changed?
Blake Brooks: Technology has been the biggest change at State Savings Bank. When I first began, the Internet and email were just becoming commercially available. Now mobile and Internet banking are very important products that we offer our customers. Candidly, if you were looking to establish a new relationship with a bank, the availability and quality of these products are one of the first things that a consumer considers. Also being able to leverage technology has had a significant impact on how we operate. The bank has grown over five times — including opening our first branch in Empire — since September 1989 and yet the number of full-time employees has remained the same. The most recent change was the announcement that Central State Bank [in Beulah and Benzonia] and State Savings Bank were going to consolidate operations. This will allow State Savings Bank to continue to leverage our technology and offer more as well as enhanced products and services for the residents of Benzie County. What should not be overlooked, however, are the employees who truly make the difference. While State Savings Bank has been able to utilize technology, it is the service our staff provides that allows us to maintain our small-town feel, to operate as a community bank. I have been very fortunate to work with a number of quality people over the last 25 years.
In terms of how Frankfort has changed, the growth in popularity has just been amazing. How many communities the size of Frankfort can boast a wine bar, brewpub, and a classic movie theater showing first-run movies? Charter fishing is as popular as ever, and you now have biking trails and surfing. I believe our restaurants and bars rival [those of] many larger communities around the state. The summer season is as strong as ever, but increasingly Frankfort has become its own unique destination, stretching the season out. Local government, business people, and the chamber have worked very hard to create a very positive vibe about Frankfort.
Current: State Savings Bank wears pretty big shoes in the community. Could you talk about the roles it plays? How does it embolden the community? What causes does it support, etc.?
Brooks: State Savings Bank serves a very basic but important role: that of a financial intermediary. We take local deposits, and we make local loans. It’s an important fact that State Savings Bank is community owned and operated. Our former President and CEO, Paul Patterson, always stressed the importance for meeting our community’s needs, and I like to think we have continued in that tradition. We do take pride in helping our local businesses get started and grow, as well as assisting our customers with buying their first home (and second, as their needs change). Providing quality customer service has always been State Savings Bank’s goal. SSB has done its best to support not only our local businesses but also our local schools, chambers, and local government whenever possible.
Current: You’re also part-owner of both The Garden Theater and Stormcloud Brewery, along with Rick Schmitt, right? How did your collaboration with Rick develop? And why does he get to have fun at the bar (and at the cinema) while you’re stuck behind a desk?
Brooks: You are correct. My wife Marci and I did partner with Rick and Jennie Schmitt to purchase and renovate The Frankfort Garden Theater. How the collaboration came about was that we were at the right place at the right time — or the wrong place at the wrong time! Seriously, the idea was hatched at the Schmitts’ dinner table in the middle of winter when the questions was raised, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to drive to Traverse City to see a movie?’ It has been a very rewarding experience. We would like to think we have brought vitality to town, especially in the off season. It’s pretty cool to see a great number of cars in town for the Sunday matinee in the middle of January! The theater was made possible not only by the support of a small group of investors who placed their trust in us but a LARGE number of volunteers who donated countless hours and helped us refurbish the theater. This October 16-19, we will hold our sixth annual Frankfort Film Festival. The film festival has grown in popularity and attendance every year.
Current: Any favorite film you’ve seen at The Garden?
Brooks: It is too difficult to single out any movie as a favorite, although with the Film Festival around the corner, I would recommend Of Gods and Men, which we played at the festival two or three years ago. The movie is a foreign language film that takes place in 1996 and is about a group of Christian monks who decide to stay in Algeria, thus risking their personal safety, rather than returning to France as a civil war intensifies.
Current: What else does Frankfort need? What does Benzie County need?
Brooks: Frankfort could use more parking in the summer time! All kidding aside, I think most would agree what Frankfort and Benzie County really need is more year-round employment opportunities. It’s difficult to watch the number of local high school graduates who leave the area to earn college degrees and typically don’t return because of the lack of job prospects. Benzie County residents are very fortunate for the opportunities that do exist, but the bigger challenge is to grow that pie. To create additional job opportunities for our best and brightest to return to Benzie County would yield significant dividends down the road.
Current: What’s your perfect autumn day in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Brooks: Blue skies, sunny, mid-70, and I’m not stuck at the office! I’m guessing I would take advantage of one of our numerous outdoor activities. I’d be outside enjoying the natural beauty that can only be found in Benzie County.
Banner image: Blake Brooks, CEO of State Savings Bank. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.