PremierWest shareholders approve acquisition by AmericanWest

On the third try, PremierWest Bancorp shareholders gave their approval to what grew into a $20 million acquisition by the owners of Spokane-based AmericanWest Bank.

After two previous shareholder meetings were adjourned, this morning's continuation at the Medford-based bank's headquarters produced the final 78,106 votes needed to push support past the 50 percent mark.

Updated 1:20 p.m. The final tally of votes on the acquisition was more than 5 million in favor, 3.2 million against and 38,848 abstentions.

"We are very pleased to announce the approval of the merger by our common shareholders. We believe that the merger will benefit our employees and customers by partnering with the significant resources of AmericanWest Bank," President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Ford said in a statement.

The deal, which already received regulatory blessing, is expected to close in April. Starbuck Bancshares has also agreed to payoff PremierWest's $41.4 million TARP loan from the Treasury Department. PremierWest Bank branches in Oregon and Northern California will be assimilated into the AmericanWest fold and take on the privately-held bank's name.

The Medford-based bank was founded in May 2000 and fared well during the prosperous real estate boom years, but rapid expansion in the middle of the decade came back to haunt PremierWest. The bank lent heavily to developers and builders, many of whom hit a financial wall when the real estate bubble burst. After acquiring a series of California banks, PremierWest found itself extended too far when the credit crunch hit in 2008 and subsequently wound up taking a $41 million TARP loan from the Treasury Department. A string of quarterly losses led to regulatory sanctions and stock prices plummeted, leading executives to search for a buyer.

"I think we built something that was wonderful and moving forward," said Bank Chairman and former CEO John Anhorn, who helped launch the bank before retiring from day-to-day duties in 2009. "But the economy caught a lot of banks. There's a new group now and they'll keep it going forward. Hopefully, what they're doing will add to the equation of what we were trying to get done."

Anhorn declined to address issues that led to the bank's demise.

"The employees, officers and shareholders built a wonderful community bank," Anhorn said. "It was serving the communities it was located in and they should be served well."

— Greg Stiles

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