When Jim Perna started working at piano maker Wurlitzer in Detroit circa 1962, the city had a vibrancy that was contagious, heady and colorful.
Perna, who has served as president/CEO of the $23 million Health One Credit Union in Detroit for 42 years, said he has seen his fair share of the city’s financial struggles over the last few decades. So, it didn’t come as a surprise when the metropolis famous for its Motown music roots filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18. With debt estimated at $20 billion, Detroit became the largest city ever in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy.
“I’ve been here 43 years in downtown Detroit. I’ve seen it all—rewrites, chargeoffs and just about everything going on with Detroit,” Perna said. “But I firmly believe the city is coming back.”
Indeed, a number of credit unions headquartered in the city are doing their part to help become the primary financial institutions to the many young people that are being heavily courted to live and work downtown. From offering incentives that include up to $20,000 to cover housing costs to major national retailers such as Whole Foods and Meijers opening up stores, city officials are hoping to quickly restructure.
Lately, Health One has been helping members cope with their own personal bankruptcy filings. Perna said he recently met with a couple that struggled due to exorbitant medical expenses. The members, who belonged to the credit union for 30 years, wanted to keep their checking account but felt they had few choices to do anything else.
“I told them we had a lot of options. We gave them $5,000 to cover some medical bills, refinanced their home and cut their interest rate in half,” Perna recalled. “Obviously, we don’t want to stick it to the credit union but we really try to work with people.”
With the surge in condo and loft construction in downtown Detroit, Health One, which was originally chartered to serve Blue Cross/Blue Shield employees, has also provided loans to members who want to live in the bustling area, Perna said. Because some of the new residents will need debit cards and financing, credit unions and banks are doing all they can to woo them.
“They’re going to need an institution where they can do their banking. So they don’t have a credit rating established but there are different options like a secured card or grandma or parents can co-sign,” Perna said. “There are ways for financial institutions to not take on risk but they can stretch a little bit.”
Perna, who turned 73 on Aug. 16, is convinced that it will be the young people who will drive Detroit’s revitalization. Their presence is already evident near the city’s waterfront which is home to trendy restaurants, clubs and outdoor weekend concerts. The Detroit Red Wings ice hockey team is planning to build a new stadium that is estimated to cost $400 million with $200 million set for retail, office, residential and hotel spaces, according to city officials. Scheduled to break ground next year, constructing the stadium could bring in 8,000 jobs.
The lures have worked for Perna’s son and daughter, who have moved to downtown Detroit. Perna, who lives in a suburb, said he’s just too old to move back into the city. However, he’s predicting a quick comeback for his hometown.
“I think it’s going to happen in three to four years, not 15 years, as some have said,” he predicted.
The Michigan Credit Union League & Affiliates is hopeful credit unions will continue to be a part of the city’s catalyst as Detroit climbs out of its financial hole.
“There is still much uncertainty about what the bankruptcy filing will mean for the city of Detroit, and that includes those credit unions that serve city employees,” said Dave Adams, CEO of MCUL & Affiliates. “But what is certain is that those credit unions will continue to support their members through this process.”
Michigan brought back nearly 135,000 jobs during the recovery of the last few years, according to the league, but the state still needs to add another 465,000 jobs to reach the same level of employment recorded in 2006. At the end of the first quarter of 2013, 35,000 more Michiganders were employed compared to 2012.
The league said while employment compared to 2006 is down across the board, some metropolitan statistical areas have fared better than others. Flint, Detroit-Livonia-Warren, Monroe, Battle Creek and Muskegon are still down 10.8% to 13.6% from 2006’s employment levels. Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Holland, and Lansing have the least ground to make up and are only 4.6% to 6.1% off.
“While these are trying times, we hope that this will be the start of a new, more prosperous future for one of America’s iconic cities,” Adams said.
Employment fluctuations have unfortunately been the norm for many of the members of the $464 million Detroit Metropolitan Credit Union, which serves city employees as well as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, said CEO Kathie Trembath.
Flux goes far back for DMCU when it opened three days after the stock market crash of 1929. As many financial institutions closed their doors for good over the next five years, the credit union remained a fixture in the Lafayette Building on Michigan Avenue for decades.
“We have always had an issue of layoffs with our members so this is not new for us,” Trembath said, referring to Detroit’s current financial condition. “I don’t think there will be layoffs with the bankruptcy but there will be reorganization. They’re talking about cutting pensions and potentially health care.”
That could be devastating for Detroit’s police and fire workers who don’t collect Social Security benefits unless they’ve worked at other jobs, Trembath said. For many, pensions are it as far as retirement savings. While cuts have been common for many of DMCU’s members, this time around, retirees may be impacted.
“We’re always prepared to work with our members. Some need loans,” Trembath said. “Though, retirees don’t have a large portion of our loans.”
To capitalize on Detroit’s Midtown area, which is on the upswing, Trembath said DMCU has worked with the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s Midtown Program to offer special rates to first-time homeowners. One of the credit union’s younger employees recently leased an apartment in the heart of the city.
“I asked her what made you want to come downtown. She said ‘you know what, something has to change.’ She and her fiancé have moved here,” Trembath said, adding, “my own daughter comes in for the nightclubs.”
The majority of DMCU’s mortgages are in the city. Trembath acknowledged the credit union has experienced some loan loss but not huge drops as older properties in the city have not rebounded as quickly as those in the suburbs.
Despite expanding to a community charter in 2006, 95% of DMCU’s more than 24,000 members are City of Detroit employees, Trembath noted. She always gets a firsthand look at just how hard unemployment has plagued the city since one of the credit union’s supervisory committee volunteers works in a high-profile budget position. She considers one particular stat mind-boggling: in 1967, the city had 25,600 employees. At the end of 2009, that number had dropped to 12,600—a 50% decrease.
“It has continued to go down since then. It just goes to show what’s happening in the city,” Trembath said.
When she became CEO of DMCU nine years ago, Trembath said she and her husband wanted to buy a house in Detroit but the $11,000 taxes on the $300,000 home they had their eye on became the deal breaker. Like Perna, she too lives in the suburbs, where her taxes are $3,000. And, because her father worked for 30 years at the iconic Stroh Brewery Co., which moved its operation from Germany to Detroit in 1850, Trembath also has a love for the city.
“People fear Detroit because they don’t know Detroit. You hear about crime, but Detroit is a major city and just like other big cities, there’s going to be crime,” Trembath said. “But we’re right on the waterfront. My staff goes out all the time for lunch, they walk around downtown. They’ve never had a concern.”
Representing more than 20,000 members and affiliates, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce said bankruptcy is the bold step needed to finally address Detroit’s financial problems in a meaningful and sustainable way.
“While nobody welcomes the concept of bankruptcy, it is necessary to solve the long-term structural financial challenges of this historic city,” said DRC President/CEO Sandy Baruah, in a statement. “This decision puts the city on a path to achieve its most essential function—providing Detroiters the services they deserve and sets the stage for a growing, vibrant Detroit.”
As the private sector continues to thrive and businesses continue to invest in Detroit, Baruah said, addressing the city’s financial instability is the final barrier to robust growth.
“At this point, we don’t think the bankruptcy will have much financial impact on most of the people in Detroit, with the obvious exception of people who work for the city or are retirees,” said Hank Hubbard, president/CEO of the $34 million Communicating Arts Credit Union in Detroit. “Pensions seem to be the thing that people are most worried will get cut, and there are about twice as many retirees than active workers.”
Detroit outsourcing services such as trash collection and public lighting will be improvements for the average person living in the city, Hubbard offered. A mix of development from private business leaders and an influx of young entrepreneurs are helping to create an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants, he’s noticed. Hubbard said all of the changes are occurring despite “our dysfunctional city government.”
And Hubbard’s daughter, Kitsi, who is interning at the $2.4 billion Michigan State University Federal Credit Union in East Lansing, recently penned a blog entry on the credit union’s website entitled, “How Broke Students Can Still Fuel Detroit’s Economy.”