Trailblazer: Commercial Bank goes green

Photo courtesy of Bill Straus

Almost seven years ago, a tornado devastated West Liberty, Ky. Its community bank, Commercial Bank, rebuilt a new facility to high environmental standards and partnered with organizations around Kentucky to rebuild the town.

By William Atkinson

Name: Commercial Bank
Assets: $137 million
Location: West Liberty, Ky.

On March 2, 2012, West Liberty, Ky., a community of 3,200 in the state’s coal region, was hit by a tornado packing winds of up to 140 miles per hour. Eight people were killed. Most of the downtown and 400 homes were destroyed. And the town suffered $50 million in damages. Morgan County, where West Liberty is located, lost more than $9 million in residential, farm, commercial and industrial assessments.

“We had a disaster plan in place, but this tornado was so destructive that we deviated from our plan a lot,” says Brock Litteral, president of $137 million-asset Commercial Bank in West Liberty. “A lot of our decision-making was done on the fly. For example, the facility we had planned to use [if a disaster ever] rendered our main facility unusable was also unusable.”

Quick stat

$50 million

Estimated damage of the EF3 tornado that hit West Liberty, Ky., in March 2012

The tornado hit West Liberty just before 6 p.m. on Friday. By Monday, Commercial Bank had opened up in the lobby of the county library. Without any computers, the community bank could only conduct basic cash and check transactions. “We were able to get backup computers a couple of days later and operate out of remote facilities so we could begin doing loans again,” Litteral says.

Damage to the bank’s building was so extensive that it was deemed a total loss. Commercial Bank decided to build a brand-new facility.

With many buildings in the downtown also completely destroyed, Commercial Bank wasn’t alone in its predicament. They decided to use this tragedy as an opportunity for innovation, and opted to rebuild according to a “green” model that relied on environmentally friendly building practices and renewable energy.

A comprehensive strategic planning process involved local leaders, prominent state nonprofits and educational institutions like the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University and the renewable energy nonprofit Regional Technology and Innovation Center. Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise, a consulting firm based in Lexington, Ky., was selected to lead the effort.

Green shoots

Commercial Bank lead the way for West Liberty by opting to “come back green,” Litteral says. The community bank designed and constructed its new facility to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold standards by incorporating environmentally friendly features. “Achieving LEED Gold is a rarity for commercial buildings in eastern Kentucky,” Litteral adds.

The new facility features a variety of green touches, such as energy-efficient tinted windows, roof material designed to deflect heat, water-efficient landscaping and large amounts of materials that were either natural or recycled. “The most significant energy-saving feature, though, is our geothermal well,” he says. This type of system uses the earth’s natural underground temperature to heat and cool the building above.

“Our electric bills went from about $5,000 a month at the old facility, which was about 23,000 square feet, to about $2,500 a month at the new facility, which is 32,000 square feet.”
—Brock Litteral, Commercial Bank

The results are not only aesthetically pleasing, Litteral says, but are saving the bank money on energy. “Our electric bills went from about $5,000 a month at the old facility, which was about 23,000 square feet, to about $2,500 a month at the new facility, which is 32,000 square feet,” he says.

Two 500-square-foot offices on the facility’s main floor will continue to help the community grow. Commercial Bank partnered with the nonprofit Sustainable Business Ventures to set aside the space for entrepreneurs. One room will be a tele-training center, or a training room for entrepreneurs. “People with expertise in setting up businesses will do tele-training so that entrepreneurs here can view the training classes,” Litteral says. The other room will be used as an incubator for entrepreneurs wanting to start their own businesses.

The bank reached out beyond its own four walls to help the community in other ways. “After the tornado, we reduced interest rates for a period of about two years for auto and home purchases for people impacted by the tornado,” he says. “We also partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build about 25 homes.” This partnership enabled Habitat to qualify for some grant money through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati, of which Commercial Bank is a member.

Commercial Bank also worked with Frontier Housing, a regional housing nonprofit, on a similar arrangement. “Since we are a Federal Home Loan Bank member, it allowed Frontier to get grant money, and we were able to close about seven or eight different loans with them,” Litteral says.

Looking to federal funding

Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear surveyed tornado damage in West Liberty, Ky., in 2012. U.S. Department of Defense

For many other of the bank’s in-house customers, Commercial Bank began to utilize the Disaster Reconstruction Program offered through the Federal Home Loan Bank, which provides funds for people impacted by disasters. The program provides qualified applicants with up to $20,000 of disaster recovery money. “For example, if someone wants to build or buy a house for $100,000, and if they meet the basic qualifications of the program, they can get the home for $80,000,” Litteral says.

And for the community at large, the bank installed a web-enabled tool called the West Liberty Energy Efficiency Education Dashboard, which is on display in the bank’s lobby. The dashboard was paid for with grant money and is managed by the Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise.

The dashboard monitors energy used in the bank, in four units in a new apartment complex and in two of the new Habitat for Humanity homes, which have solar panels and are designed to have a net-zero energy consumption. For comparison, it measures an older home’s energy consumption. The dashboard is available at for viewing.

Efforts have been paying off. Groups have even toured the bank to learn from its eco-friendly features. And by 2016, total assessments in the county were $266 million, surpassing what they were before the tornado hit four years prior.

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.