Bank of the Ozarks plans new corporate facilities in Ozark, Ark.

Although the corporate headquarters for Bank of the Ozarks is in Little Rock, the bank is making a strong statement that it continues to be a major player in Ozark, in the Arkansas Valley where it began.

Bank of the Ozarks, which traces its history back to 1903, has grown into a financial institution of $2.7 billion in assets and about 650 employees systemwide in the nearly 30 years that lawyer George Gleason has owned it.

This includes the bank complex in Ozark, the corporate headquarters on Chenal Parkway in Little Rock and a new building going up near the Promenade at Chenal shopping center under construction farther out on Chenal - a total of 65 branches in Arkansas and six in Texas. There also are loan production offices in Charlotte, N.C., and Little Rock.

A few weeks ago, the bank announced it had started construction on a 27,614-squarefoot addition that, when connected with an existing facility, will become the Kennith Smith Operations Center in Ozark. The center will be at 600 W.Commercial St. and will have about 45,000 square feet that will accommodate around 200 employees. The center will be three stories tall at its highest point.

Will all this be a major development in the city of Ozark, the county seat of Franklin County?

"It sure will be," said Susan Blair, executive vice president of the bank. "It reflects that we're one of the major employers in Ozark and committed to a large employment base in the community.

"There may be an industrial building or a school building larger, but there's not an office building larger in Ozark." The Little Rock firm of Polk Stanley Rowland Curzon, which has designed several award-winning buildings in the state, including the Heifer International building in downtown Little Rock, was the architectural firm. Bossler Contracting Inc. is the contractor.

The center, expected to be opened in March 2009, will be dedicated to Kennith Smith, a member of the bank's board since 1977 and a director of Bank of the Ozarks Inc. since 1997. Smith, 75, is now retired. He previously was owner and operator of Smith Cattle Farm and co-owner of Mulberry Lumber Co.

Bank of the Ozarks got its start when Gleason combined two small community banks - one that began in Jasper, the county seat of Newton County, in 1903 and another in Ozark that began in 1937.

Gleason, a native of Dardanelle, practiced law at a major firm in Little Rock prior to 1979, when he purchased controlling interest in Bank of the Ozarks. At that time, the bank had total assets of $28 million and 28 employees. It grew steadily, and in 1994, with five banking offices in rural Arkansas markets, Bank of the Ozarks Inc., the holding company, began an aggressive growth effort, going up against larger Arkansas and out-of-state banks.

Corporate headquarters was moved to Little Rock in 1995, while selected key operations and support positions were kept in Ozark. The bank held its initial public offering in July 1997, forming Bank of the Ozarks Inc.

As its facilities in Little Rock grew, so did the key support facilities in Ozark.

About two years ago, the bank's retail center of about 9,500 square feet in Ozark was built and named the Porter Hilliard Banking Center in honor of a director of nearly 40 years. At this time, most of the old banking facility was torn down.

The Kennith Smith building just announced is across the street from the Porter Hilliard Center, which was opened in December 2006 and includes 16 offices, conference rooms and five teller counters. It was designed to handle the retail banking needs of its Ozark customers because the bank had outgrown its original building. About 25 people work in this facility.

A major feature of the new building's lobby was the 56-foot-long Original Ozark Mural, carved in California redwood by artist Ralph Irwin of Van Buren. The mural was commissioned by the bank in 1990 and first displayed in 1992. It consists of 10 panels depicting the history and evolution of Ozark.