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Bank marking 100 years of service in downtown Sarnia

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Few businesses can claim a century of service in Sarnia’s downtown, but Scotiabank will do just that on March 13.

The bank has endured the downtown’s up-and-down economy, the advent of big box stores, even a tornado — challenges few other core enterprises have weathered as well.

As she prepares to roll out the anniversary cake and refreshments, Christina Street branch manager Christina Longo notes no other bank still operates downtown. The Bank of Montreal, RBC and CIBC all closed their downtown branches in recent years.

“We’ve kept our presence and that’s definitely something to celebrate,” said Longo.

Scotiabank – originally The Bank of Nova Scotia – arrived downtown in 1920. In the early days space was leased in the Vendome Hotel, which stood at the corner of Cromwell and Front streets, on what is now a parking lot.

The bank did well that first decade, doubling the number of safety deposit boxes to 48, and soon it moved to bigger premises at 195 Christina St. North.

Scotiabank branch manager Christina Longo, right, and 35-year employee Linda Henry, prepare to celebrate the branch’s 100th anniversary in downtown Sarnia.
Cathy Dobson

That’s at the northwest corner of Lochiel, the current location of Freshii restaurant. The branch was there for decades, closing only briefly after the devastating tornado ripped through in 1953.

Bank employee G.P. Connors’ description of what he witnessed that evening from inside the bank was later published in the Bank of Nova Scotia staff magazine:

“Suddenly, with a terrific explosion which shook the building, the tornado hit,” Connors wrote.

“We could hear the noise of falling buildings and although we didn’t realize just what was going on, with a yell of ‘let’s get out of here,’ we all dashed for the vault.  We made the safety of the vault amid a shower of glass caused by a brick crashing through one of the windows.”

Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt but damage to the building was extensive. The roof was torn away and a wall badly cracked. Rain drenched the top two storeys and leaked into the bank’s ground floor offices.

The branch closed for repairs for a short period and, like many other resilient downtown businesses, re-opened as soon as possible.

In 1964, the branch moved a few doors south to 179 Christina St., where theStory currently operates a community hub.

An open house at that location attracted an estimated 4,500 people in one afternoon.

“That’s not something you always see,” noted Longo, holding photos of huge lines of people crowding in to see the location at 179 Christina and have some cake.

In the late 1980s the bank moved again, to the two-storey brick building it still occupies today at 169 Christina St. N.

“We are a busy branch with a lot of foot traffic,” said Longo. “We have no plans to close. There’s still a lot of opportunity downtown and we see a lot of new shops opening.”

Though online banking is popular, many business people and older customers prefer face-to-face service, Longo said.

“The advice piece will always be a factor, and for that you need to see someone in person,” she said. “There may be fewer monetary transactions through here but there are still times you need cash, financial advisors, and financial planners.”

On Friday, March 13, the community is invited to celebrate Scotiabank’s 100th anniversary in the downtown core.

Longo and the branch’s 10 employees will be serving up cake and refreshments from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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