<p>WASHINGTON – On March 11 Anthony Lacreta, Director of NCUA's Office of Credit Union Development, may make history when he represents the agency at a workshop sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) aimed at coordinating federal help to low-income communities spread along the U.S.-Mexico border. LaCreta may be the first NCUA official to participate in a workshop under the aegis of the agency's Access Across America initiative. Announced by NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar during CUNA's GAC 2002, Access Across America seeks to provide credit unions wishing to expand their services to underserved communities with one source they can consult to research NCUA requirements as well as find out what federal resources might be available to help them, Dollar said. "That's one reason we have given the initiative its own Web site," Dollar said. Ideally, credit unions will be able to research and fulfill their NCUA requirements for adding underserved areas to their fields of membership and also apply to other federal agencies which might have programs that could help them serve those members, Dollar added. "Through technology all the data and applications can all be in one place, "he said. That kind of cooperation between NCUA and other federal agencies is a major part of the Access Across America initiative and explains why LaCreta will fly across the country to Coachella, California to take part in the meeting. HUD is studying how to implement the so-called Colonias Gateway Initiative, a federal effort to foster affordable housing and economic development, including affordable financial services, to the small impoverished communities, called Colonias, that spread along the U.S. – Mexico border through four states. The meeting LaCreta will attend will cover the Initiative's effort in California and Arizona. Another meeting will be held to discuss the effort in New Mexico and Texas. Dollar emphasized that this federal cooperation is meant to help credit unions get tangible help in serving underserved people. "What many of the NCUA's critics don't understand," Dollar said, "is that when a credit union applies to add an underserved area to its field of membership that credit union has to show that they will be able to serve that area, they must have a business plan showing how they plan to serve that area and they have to establish a physical presence in or near that area. They have to put their money where their mouth is," he added. The levels of federal cooperation in Access Across America should result in credit unions getting practical help with the expansion needed to serve an underserved area adequately, Dollar said. He used the example of a smaller, single employer group credit union that would like to serve an underserved area nearby. "They might be willing to do it and able to put together the money for the rent on a new location," Dollar said, "but they might need help with computers, or office equipment," he said, or just some money to help get things underway. If that money is available from a federal agency with an interest in helping the underserved find better financial services, why shouldn't a credit union apply for it and why shouldn't they be able to do it easily, Dollar asked. Dollar denied that the Access Across America was a completely new initiative and instead referred to it as a "heightening" of the agency's previous efforts to help credit unions serve underserved communities. In that respect he concurred with an NCUA source that previously denied Access Across America was particularly political in the sense of trying to defend credit unions against some of their contemporary critics, most recently NCRC. The Chairman pointed out that credit unions had nothing to be ashamed of in their adoption of underserved areas with 16.1 million residents in 2001 and that the effort continued. "Just earlier this week," Dollar said, "I was given a report that detailed that 51 credit unions had added 71 underserved areas containing 2.9 million more people," so far in 2002. Dollar said the agency understood that simply adding new people to fields of membership is not the same thing as making them credit union members, but he pointed out that critics misunderstood the importance of access. "Our critics don't understand the difference between what government can do and what the private sector can do," Dollar said. "Government has never made someone a bank customer or a credit union member, " he added. " What government can do is to provide access." People being added to credit union fields of membership may not be credit union members already, Dollar said, but they are that much closer. They could not have been credit union members before they were included in the fields of membership, he pointed out. The numbers of people added to credit union fields of membership is one way, but only one way, Dollar will judge the success of Access Across America. While stressing the number is not "official" Dollar and the NCUA staff have been carrying a goal of credit unions adding 20 million people in underserved areas to their fields of membership in 2002 as a measure of how the effort is going. The agency will also look at how many of the new potential credit union members actually become members of credit unions, he added, as a measure of initiative success. Periodically credit unions report to the agency how many members they have and it will be relatively easy for the agency to go back to credit unions which added underserved areas, say a year later, and see if their membership numbers reflect any increases. But Dollar emphasized that "penetration" will never be the only standard for credit union success since, he said, numbers alone don't tell you anything about the people actually being served. He used as an example a credit union with a new area of 35,000 potential new members and from which it had been able to garner 3,000 members, less than 10% penetration. Dollar pointed out that those 3,000 people might have been the area's neediest, the primary population victimized regularly by check cashers and payday lenders. Dollar also said that Access Across America has particularly focused on outreach. The agency's work to move credit union services into the Hispanic community will now come under the Access Across America initiative, as will the work with faith based credit unions. Dollar used as an example the $1 million dollar Shiloh of Alexandria credit union, based in Alexandria, Va. The NCUA had been concerned about how the Church based credit union would survive with primarily a Church-based field of membership. At the same time there was nearby the Church a significantly sized underserved area. By helping Shiloh add the underserved area, the NCUA both helped the credit union and helped ease some of the agency's safety and soundness concerns.</p>

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