St. Louis Community Credit Union expands reach in high poverty neighborhoods | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Community Credit Union expands reach in high poverty neighborhoods

Sep 5, 2016

Triple A Fish House on Union Boulevard in northwest St. Louis has a new neighbor: the Gateway Branch of the St. Louis Community Credit Union.

“I’m so grateful that they’re there,” said Allison Carson, who’s been selling “the best fish and tripe in St. Louis” at the same location south of Natural Bridge Avenue for 14 years.

“They are for the community. They give us loans with a low-interest rate.”

Allison Carson has owned Triple A Fish House on Union Boulevard for 14 years.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Carson used to walk across the street to do her banking at Gateway Bank, but it fell on hard times and closed its doors in 2012.

Then this past March St. Louis Community Credit Union opened its new branch building at Gateway Bank’s old location, allowing the restaurant owner to stroll over and handle her accounts once more.

“It’s really a good asset to the neighborhood,” Carson said. “We have a bunch of senior citizens that don’t have cars. We have a low-income building that’s right across the street there, and it makes it easier for them to go over there and cash their checks.”

Gateway Bank was St. Louis’ first black-owned bank.  When it opened in 1965 few banks were offering loans to African Americans.

Deborah Thimes has lived in the neighborhood since she was a little girl in the 1960s and remembers the bank’s impact.

Gateway Bank opened in 1965 on Union Avenue. It's investors envisioned a bank owned by African Americans serving African Americans.
Credit Provided | St. Louis Community Credit Union

  “A lot of people in the neighborhood always came here and they would just talk about it. ‘Gateway’s going to help me to build a home, or keep my home or buy home,’” Thimes recalled, sitting inside the Gateway Branch Friday waiting to talk to a teller. “Back in the day we didn’t have a lot of banks that really helped us African-American people, so Gateway was definitely the number one bank for us.”

Thimes said the new credit union branch has the same helpful feel.

“I have bad credit and they showed me how I could take so much out of my check each pay period towards building my credit back up, and I was really glad of that,” Thimes said.

Continuing the legacy

St. Louis Community Credit Union is trying to continue Gateway Bank’s mission by opening branches in low-income neighborhoods and offering people chances to build wealth and good credit.

A disproportionate number of black St. Louisans still lack access to financial services today.

St. Louis Community Credit Union's new Gateway Branch has drive-thru windows on it's north side.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

The Gateway Branch is St. Louis Community Credit Union’s thirteenth branch located in a high poverty area. A fourteenth is under construction in south St. Louis near Benton Park.

CEO Patrick Adams said St. Louis Community Credit Union chooses locations based on the number of high-interest financial institutions in the area.

“We look for severely distressed communities, communities that are historically served by the fringe banking element, not mainstream banking,” Adams said. “We’re trying to combat payday lending, check cashing, those covert, shadow banking entities that may exist. We want to put mainstream banking in the hands of people who are otherwise underserved.”

Adams said the credit union offers services that meet the needs of people without much money such as second chance checking accounts and small dollar lending — services that traditional banks don’t offer.

A payday loan shop on Natural Bridge Avenue east of Union Boulevard. The high interest rate of payday loans can leave people on the hook for paying more in interest than the original loan.
Credit File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

  “We come in and we say hey, we’ll drop the barriers to entry if you’ve had dings in your life in the past, you’ve had problems in the past. We get it,” Adams said. “Our banking community does a lot of good work, and I don’t fault them. Their business model is such that they are looking for profit, which drives them into more affluent neighborhoods, more affluent type of account activities, more business related activities.”

Because the credit union offers different services, U.S. Bank’s Steve Kramer doesn’t see it as competition either. A U.S. Bank branch is located on Natural Bridge Avenue near the Gateway Branch.

“We can offer services that the credit union may not be able to,” Kramer said. “It’s not atypical for individuals to have multiple banking relationships to serve multiple banking needs.”

Kramer works at U.S. Bank’s community development corporation, which invested $1.3 Million in New Market Tax Credits towards the construction of the Gateway Branch and the branch being built near Benton Park.

Kramer said it’s to U. S. Bank’s advantage to help St. Louis Community Credit Union reach people outside the mainstream financial system, known as the unbanked because it helps build the region’s economic power and builds a pathway for the credit union’s customers to one day become U.S. Bank’s customers.

“We’re always trying to grow and these are customers, untapped potential customers,” Kramer said.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.