First Southeast Bank in Harmony finished its expansion and remodel project in early September and will hold an open house on Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
First Southeast Bank in Harmony finished its expansion and remodel project in early September and will hold an open house on Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Small town main streets can often feel like a natural extension of one's own home. Storefronts change infrequently and even when they do, they usually don't disrupt a person's routine navigation of downtown. However, change where a person needs to enter a building and people who have lived their entire lives in one town suddenly become unsure of reality.

For the past year, First Southeast Bank in Harmony underwent a major expansion and remodel project which increased space by 50 percent. People immediately noticed changes such as the parking lot drive-thru window and the new addition to the 1959 building.

Then, one day, the door through which people had entered the bank for years was not there. The new entrance was just up the sidewalk and through the ATM room. Chris Skaalen, bank president, said he told people to go through the ATM room. Some the responses showed people's unfamiliarity with the new system: "I don't need to use the ATM."

Despite the changes, Skaalen pointed out that what has changed is benefitting both the people who bank in Harmony and those who work there.

According to Skaalen, plans to give the bank a remodel go back about six years. He noted how the bank was growing and space was becoming more and more limited. With no basement, staff offices began to double as storage space.

"We had people on top of each other," described Skaalen about how limited space forced staff and patrons to be in close proximity, even when discussing private banking matters.

Two and a half years ago, Skaalen said they finally started getting serious about doing something. "We thought about what we wanted; we wanted to do it right," he explained about the initial brainstorming process.

The first questions the board of directors asked themselves: Do we remodel? Do we build new? Do we move to another location?

Skaalen said it become obvious very quickly that moving the bank was not a good idea. "We wanted to be dedicated to the Main Street. We have a lot of foot traffic and people like to do everything in one area."

It was determined that an expansion and remodel would be necessary. As property came up for sale north of the existing building, the bank purchased it and started looking for general contractors. They settled upon The Samuels Group, Inc., out of Wausau, Wis., which had experience with bank building projects.

In late 2011, the contractor interviewed all staff members independently and compiled opinions on what changes needed to take place. Skaalen said the Samuels Group took those opinions and incorporated them into the overall design. Local contractor Morem Electric was also involved in the early electrical design process.

The design process emphasized what Skaalen and the board of directors deemed to be the biggest areas of current concern: space, privacy and mechanical and electrical efficiency.

The building had undergone a major renovation in 1972 and another cosmetic remodel in 1987. However, issues still arose. During the fall and winter, it became very obvious which rooms were located near the heater and which rooms were not. A complete overhaul on the buildings heating, ventilation and air conditioning was a necessity.

Skaalen also said he didn't like how close people were who might be completing different, and often private, banking transactions. Comparing the current, more spacious lobby with the previous one, Skaalen said the tellers, lending area and lobby were all right next to each other. He explained how a person at that time could be giving out private information and be only a few feet from a person in the lobby.

During the remodel, a larger lobby area was created to provide a buffer between the tellers, loan officers and other offices. Insulation was also installed in the space above the ceiling to cut down on noise bleeding through walls in the offices.

As part of the expansion, a climate-controlled basement was created for storage space and housing for information technology servers. The basement is only located underneath the new part of the building, since the footings for the original building wouldn't have allowed it.

The remodel also widened hallways Skaalen reported would have only fit one person through before. Asbestos abatement also took place in five segments. The teller line was moved back to where the back room was originally, in one night.

Skaalen praised the contractors for doing the work in a way that allowed the bank to maintain business. "It was really hard, but I think for the most part it went well," he said.

He also noted how he never had complaints from the staff and the customers were able to realize there would only be temporary inconveniences.

The reward was a brighter, more spacious hometown bank. Gone is the dark wood paneling. In its place is a brighter color scheme.

Skaalen said additional interior design work is being done in preparation for an open house on Monday, Oct. 14. The bank will have normal business hours from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the open house hours extending to 6 p.m. Visitors can sign up for door prizes and enjoy some refreshments. People will be able to let the bank know what they like and want to see in future changes, building or banking-wise.

Already, visitors to the bank have noted their approval toward the changes, which Skaalen said will match their upbeat staff.

"One thing we pride ourselves on is customer service," he concluded, noting how the building changes are just a precursor to being able to offer more services.

Now that the work is done, it's up to the customers to get used to the updated main street. Take the ATM entrance.