As the only locally owned bank in its town, Community Bank of Oelwein feels and fulfills a responsibility to uplift its community through projects like the construction of a new event center.
By Tiffany Lukk
The role community banks play in their local areas is invaluable to their customers. That’s why, when all the community banks in Oelwein, Iowa, had been acquired or supplanted by national banks and credit unions, a small group of investors came together in 1998 to form Community Bank of Oelwein. Today, it is the town’s only community bank.
Because it was founded and is owned by members of the community, the $115 million-asset bank’s mission to serve the town was built in from the start, says Jim Kullmer, president and CEO of Community Bank of Oelwein, who has been at the bank since 2018.
“When I hire employees, I really emphasize that we’re a community bank, and that means that we are involved in the community,” Kullmer says. “Our communities are the reason that we exist, and that’s the only reason we are successful.”
Since it was founded almost 25 years ago, the community bank has assisted Oelwein in myriad ways, including participating in the local food bank, sponsoring the town’s fine arts auditorium and keeping the local movie theater running with donations. Its latest gift to the town is the most ambitious yet: supporting the construction of a new event center.
“If there are big projects coming down the road that the bank can be the leader on, we want that to be our focus, and really give back to the community.”
—Jim Kullmer, Community Bank of Oelwein
Last September, Kullmer announced that Community Bank of Oelwein would pledge $250,000 to the event center. The bank will contribute an initial $50,000 in seed money, and then match donations from community residents up to an additional $200,000.
Currently, a former grocery store houses the town’s small community center. Plans for the new event center include taking over a 30,000-square-foot space recently vacated by a Dollar General that moved to a new location. Instead of letting the building deteriorate, Kullmer thought it would be the perfect space for an event center due to its proximity to multiple local restaurants, bars and hotels, which will all benefit from its construction.
The event center is just the latest in a string of headlining projects. When Community Bank of Oelwein hit its 20-year anniversary in 2018 and started to build strong capital reserves, its board of directors expressed a desire to give back to the community in bigger ways, Kullmer says. Projects like the new event center have helped the community bank win community awards, such as Most Congenial Business in Town and Community Booster of the Year from the local Chamber of Commerce.
“If there are big projects coming down the road that the bank can be the leader on,” says Kullmer, “we want that to be our focus, and really give back to the community.”
Learning from experience
Kullmer has a track record of spearheading community construction projects. Before joining Community Bank of Oelwein, he was executive vice president of Benton County State Bank and served on the Blairstown Community Foundation in Blairstown, Iowa. Multiple buildings were falling apart, says Kullmer, and the town lacked a focal point.
To remedy the problem, he led a committee to build a new community center for the town of 700. They designed a facility that had a library, a new city hall, a gymnasium and more. The total cost was $1.4 million, but through the committee’s fundraising efforts, assistance from local charities and grants from the state, the entire building was paid for, in full, the day it opened its doors. It was because of Kullmer’s experience that he was put in charge of Oelwein’s event center.
“The biggest lesson I got from the Blairstown project was making sure we involve every facet of the community in the project,” Kullmer says. The center serves several demographics, so the committee included everyone from members of the business community and senior citizens to people with young children in the planning process.
Kullmer continues to ensure that every voice is heard. He recently organized another committee with the head of the Oelwein Chamber office, a local market president from a competition bank, the school’s superintendent, a sales manager from the local newspaper and others.
Despite these efforts, Kullmer says there will always be detractors. “There are always going to be people that don’t like change,” he says. “There are going to be people that don’t understand why you’re making the investment you are—but that’s just part of it.
“[In the Blairstown project,] once the building was done, and once people realized what an asset they had in their community, a lot of tunes changed. And I anticipate the same thing here.”
When Kullmer announced he was leaving Blairstown for Oelwein, his former customers came into the bank to tell him how much he helped them. “That was probably the first time it was really driven home what a common impact you can have in a small community,” he says. “And I hope that when my time here in Oelwein is done, I have that same kind of response.”
Tiffany Lukk is associate editor of Independent Banker.