The following story is the third in a series highlighting investment opportunities among the most strongly capitalized community and regional banks and thrifts with high prospects for growth. The first strong banks story was published Thursday and part 2 on Friday.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As global banks including Bank of America and Citigroup received government lifelines, First Niagara Financial ( FNFG) in upstate New York almost doubled in size with two acquisitions. The company, based in Lockport, about 400 miles from Wall Street, joins a select group of regional banks that have profited from the financial crisis. Other banks include People's United Financial ( PBCT), Hudson City Bancorp ( HCBK) and Cullen/Frost Bankers ( CFR).

We pared the list of 920 publicly traded U.S. bank and thrift holding companies (excluding those traded on the Pink Sheets), for which September financial information was provided by SNL Financial, using the following criteria: tangible common equity ratio above 7%; positive return on assets for the first three quarters of 2009; nonperforming-assets ratio less than 2%; ratio of loans/total assets above 50%; year-to-date net charge-offs of less than 1% of average loans; average trading volume above 50,000 shares a day; any Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) has been repaid; total assets over $5 billion.

First Niagara Financial, founded in 1870 as Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank and today has more than 400,000 customers, is moving aggressively to expand on the cheap in Pennsylvania.

We previously recommended the stock in March 2008, when First Niagara was trading at $11.66. The shares are now at about $13, down 16% this year. The S&P 400 Midcap Financials index has risen 7%.

In July, First Niagara agreed to acquire Harleysville National ( HNBC) for about $237 million, or $5.50 a share, 1.2 times Harleysville's tangible book value, according to SNL Financial. First Niagara paid a 38% premium for the Harleysville, Pennsylvania-based bank, which is based about 35 miles from Philadelphia.

The deal benefited shareholders of both companies because First Niagara will grab $4 billion in deposits in a coveted market, and Harleysville National was below well-capitalized, according to regulatory guidelines. The acquisition will be completed in the first quarter.

First Niagara finished its acquisition of 57 National City Bank branches from PNC Financial ( PNC) in September, bringing in $3.9 billion in deposits and $757 million of quality loans. Total assets were $14.1 billion as of Sept. 30, up 57% from a year earlier.

While First Niagara will have to work through more bad loans once the Harleysville acquisition is completed, the bank is becoming a major regional player, having set itself up for expansion in a down market by building a strong capital base and maintaining good asset quality.

First Niagara improved its net interest margin, which was 3.63% for the first three quarters, up from 3.51% a year earlier.

Goldman Sachs analyst Brian Foran has a "buy" rating on the company, projecting that annual earnings may eventually increase to $1.40 a share. Foran's 12-month price target is $15, but First Niagara has the potential to rise much higher than that for investors with a longer-term outlook.

-- Reported by Philip van Doorn in Jupiter, Fla.
Philip W. van Doorn joined Ratings., Inc., in February 2007. He is the senior analyst responsible for assigning financial strength ratings to banks and savings and loan institutions. He also comments on industry and regulatory trends. Mr. van Doorn has fifteen years experience, having served as a loan operations officer at Riverside National Bank in Fort Pierce, Florida, and as a credit analyst at the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, where he monitored banks in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Mr. van Doorn has additional experience in the mutual fund and computer software industries. He holds a Bachelor of Science in business administration from Long Island University.