AMES, IOWA – A growing membership base, a new regional development plan and a community charter have reordered priorities for one of Iowa's largest credit unions. ISU Community Credit Union had planned to remodel its existing downtown office this year and open a full-service branch next year. But a burst of new members since it switched to a community charter two years ago has forced a change of thinking. As a result, ISUCCU this September will open its first branch office in a new development north of downtown Ames. "We have room for four tellers in our lobby (in the existing downtown building), and two or three days a week those four tellers are trying to serve people backed up four and five deep," said president and chief executive M. Kim Sharp. "I spend time in that lobby passing out candy and telling people `I'm sorry, wait `til you see our new facility.'" The credit union has bought land and is building its own branch building in Somerset Village, a 200-acre, high-density, residential and commercial development. During a planned 10-to-15-year build out, Somerset Village will grow to approximately 2,800 housing units, according to David Maahs, executive director of the Ames Chamber of Commerce and the Ames Economic Development Commission. ISUCCU has taken an anchor location in the commercial side of Somerset Village. Other early tenants, said Maahs, are a hair salon and offices for a dentist and an architectural firm. The 69-year-old credit union converted to a community charter two years ago, and has added 2,000 members in that time. The credit union's statement of condition on the credit union's Web site shows assets of $97.4 million at March 1, 2001, up from $94.1 a year earlier. Sharp said membership is now 15,685. According to 2000 Census figures, Ames has a population of 50,731 in 18,085 households; Story County has 79,981 people and 29,383 households, reflecting modest growth in recent years. Maahs said the community's economy has seen steady growth. Forty percent of employment, he said, is in the service sector, which includes Iowa State University, and several state and federal government offices and research centers. The CU, which began as a service to the university community, now operates 24 automatic teller machines at service stations, convenience stores, retail outlets and on the Iowa State campus. It competes with three other credit unions in Story County and several banks, including newcomers such as Wells Fargo, Norwest Bank Iowa, NA, and Firstar, which bought out local institutions. Sharp believes that the decline of locally owned competition in financial services will give his institution an advantage in the years ahead. "If you don't offer people really human-being service and take of them, you're not going to keep them," Sharp said. The new office will divide the existing customer base and work force and Sharp plans to add insurance and investment services, through CUNA Mutual Group, and perhaps a travel agency, to target higher net worth customers. He said the credit union currently has 79 members with accounts valuing between $100,000 and $600,000 and many university people are retiring with retirement accounts in excess of $1 million. These are people, he said, "that really need to know where to put their money" and he believes ISUCCU will be able to offer those services with the additional branch. The new building, which the credit union will own, is expected to open in mid-September. Sharp said the existing staff of 30 full-time and 14 part-time employees will not grow initially, but will be divided among the two facilities. Sharp sees the little risk in the expansion. The existing downtown building, which the credit union also owns, has roughly the same value as the new building – $2.3 million – and could be easily sold. "I was willing to take the risk to build another facility knowing that I could probably sell the (old) one and pay for my next facility, if worse came to worse," he said. Still, he expects the new office to spur at least modest growth. He said he would be happy if the CU adds 400 new members by the end of 2001. More broadly, however, he hopes to grow membership by 10 percent annually over the next few years. In fact, Sharp estimates that 2,400 new members will join ISUCCU during the full year 2001, but, because the credit union has a strong base at a university, it has a high level of turnover from year to year as students and staff move on. Net growth, as a result, should be about 1,200 to 1,300 members. -

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