NAPA – In times of economic strife, thinking about your banker as a business partner will prove good for both a company and the bank.

So said Napa community bankers Brian Kelly, Tom Le Masters and Dennis Pedisich, top executives of Charter Oak Bank, Bank of Napa and Napa Community Bank. The bankers say that they have seen an up-tick in several areas of banking during the downturn, most notably, the importance of clients keeping in touch with their banks.

“We are working with existing borrowers,” said Mr. Pedisich, president and chief executive officer of Napa Community Bank. He said it is lowering interest rates, offering interest-only loans and coming up with other ways to help customers who may not be in the same position they were when they opened accounts with the bank.

“When you lend in the community you live in and eat in and shop in,” said Mr. Kelly, president and CEO of Charter Oak, “you have a feel to the pulse of the community.” Being close to the client helps the banks make sound decisions.

“There is comfort in doing business locally,” said Mr. LeMasters, president and CEO of Bank of Napa.

In December of last year, Charter Oak Bank rolled out a “Skip-Your-Payment” program allowing people not make payments for the month. Mr. Kelly said the payment-deferral offer would help alleviate financial stress that may be affecting some customers as a result of the current economy. The purpose of this offer was to help customers with near-term cash-flow during the holidays.

The program was such a success and, according to Mr. Kelly, cost the bank so little that he plans on doing the program again, this time maybe as early in the year as August, he said.

Napa County is in a slightly different position than the rest of California. Unemployment is at 9 percent compared with the current 11.5 percent in California.

The economy is strongly dependent on hospitality, tourism and wine.

These industries, Mr. Pedisich said, are more resistant to the economic climate and, he said, may even benefit from it.

“With the tourism in Napa and the economy down, you have more people going on ‘staycations,’” he said.

People who may usually leave the country or go to the East Coast, he went on, may take more day trips or overnights in the Wine Country, bringing money into the community.

“We count our blessings that we are here,” he said.

Mr. Kelly agreed, saying of course Napa is feeling the effects of the recession, “but we are so lucky not to have some of the problems that our brethren in other parts of the state and country have,” he said of areas that were heavy in construction loans. “If you fly over Napa, one thing you don’t see are a bunch of sticks in the air.”

Nonetheless, he added, there will be new challenges in commercial real estate, which comprises an average of 75 percent of the loans of all three banks.

“There will be bumps,” he said. “We are not out of this yet.”

Mr. LeMasters said that in addition to his clients being more communicative and reaching out, he has also seen a particular change in public perception toward community banks during this recession.

That perception has changed, he said, to where people are seeing community banks as particularly safe and sound.