LEWISTON – Since May, the president of TD Banknorth has been telling community leaders a few at a time: The bank would not pull up stakes and move hundreds of jobs to New Jersey.

“The question just kept popping up. It was amazing, no matter how many people I told, every two weeks it was, ‘How soon are you guys leaving?'” Larry Wold said Friday.

Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce President Chip Morrison suggested Wold break the news to everyone at this week’s annual meeting.

News that the company decided it needed two operations centers and “one of those will always be in this market” drew quick applause.

The future of the local bank, which employs 1,100 people in Androscoggin County, had been uncertain after TD Banknorth Financial Group bought the New Jersey-based Commerce Bank in 2007. Almost immediately, the company announced intentions to merge back office operations. It could have meant gaining jobs here or losing them.

Wold told the crowd at the Ramada Inn that banking customers expect 24-hour access to accurate, current and secure account information.

“That’s a pretty big challenge to try to deliver those things,” Wold said. “In order to meet that expectation, you have to have a backup. If one of those operating centers goes down, you have to have a place you can turn on, like that.

“We made a very conscious, and committed decision from a strategic standpoint that we would never collapse down to one operation center, that we would always maintain at least two and one of those will always be in this market.”

The other center is in Cherry Hill, N.J. The bank has more offices in Toronto.

Wold elaborated Friday on a reference to the company continuing to grow. He said he could see employment remaining flat locally for the next one to three years with an occasional “bumpy ride” as some employees are let go and others hired while the bank decides which of its divisions should move where.

Three to five years out, Wold said he could see employment growing but it was too early for specifics.

At the dinner, several people asked about rumors TD Banknorth was looking for more space.

“It’s one of the options we’re considering. It’s premature to say we’re negotiating for space. By the same token, (others have noticed) we have people nosing around,” he said. “There are opportunities to grow within the Bates mill and in greater Lewiston-Auburn.”

Employees work locally out of the Bates Mill, the Fairground Business Park, a computer center near the turnpike and several branch offices.

“We like where the community’s headed,” Wold said. “Our work force there is just second to none.”

Lincoln Jeffers, head of economic and community development for Lewiston, said he was struck by a figure Wold shared: Of the 1.5 million bank statements mailed out of Lewiston offices in December, only one came back with an error complaint.

The city has worked with bank officials over the past year, Jeffers said. “We’re very happy.”

It’s been challenging to merge two big banks amid “industry chaos,” Wold said, but his bank, with conservative, careful lending and investing, has found itself in a better spot than a lot of competitors.

“I think it’s important with all the (worries) going on about the banking industry, we continue to grow, we continue to be profitable,” he said.

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