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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When the Greenville South Carolina Urban League initially asked John Carlson, CEO of the $472 million Charlotte-based Sharonview Federal Credit Union, to consult on getting a credit union started in the historic, but economically depressed, area known as West Greenville, Carlson did not expect that his credit union would wind up playing as pivotal a role as it has. On November 19, the credit union’s newest branch, the only one of its 19 branches to have a community field of membership and the only one dedicated to serving an underserved area, will open its doors in a designated historic district of Greenville. When it does so it will represent a triumph of organizing on the part of local community supporters of a credit union as well as the first step for Sharonview into a new type of credit union service. “In many ways it is new for us, but we are prepared to take the challenge,” said Michelle Bragg, vice president of business development for the credit union. Sharonview began as a solely sponsored institutions, supported by the Hoescht-Celonese Corporation, a sometime German-owned manufacturing conglomerate that has bought and sold other companies over the years, Bragg explained. The company’s purchases of other firms meant that Sharonview would frequently have new groups of potential members to introduce to credit union services, and the credit union would set up new branches in the plants Celonese acquired. As the credit union grew that has meant opening branches in New Jersey and South Carolina, as well as North Carolina, she said. But the West Greenville branch will be the first one to be designated with a community credit union field of membership that is defined as an underserved area by census tract. “In that regard it’s like a low-income designated branch,” she explained, even though Sharonview will have none of the other benefits of a low-income designation, such as an easing of secondary capital rules. “It’s mostly a field of membership thing.” The Greenville Urban League asked Sharonview initially, to consult on setting up a credit union after Claire Winkler-Geddie, a church leader and community volunteer, read in a Methodist magazine about the impact a credit union had on a community in Tennessee. “It was in 1999,” Geddie said, “and I had just begun to see all those predatory-type financial firms springing up around here. Title loan places and payday loan places and check cashers – but no banks and no real financial firms,” she said. “Reading that article made me think, you know, we really do need a credit union, and I approached the Urban League to begin putting one together.” Because the credit union described in the article had gotten underway with Community Reinvestment money donated from area banks, that was the model that Geddie thought their credit union was going to have to follow. “I thought we were going to have to start in a church basement someplace and have nothing but handouts from banks and it was going to take a long time,” she said, “but I really didn’t understand how long that was going to take.” All that changed, she explained, when it came out that one of the Greenville Urban League’s Board members was also on Sharonview’s Board. That coincidence is what led the Greenville Urban League to ask Sharonview’s advice about starting a credit union, which in turn led to Sharonview’s suggesting putting a branch in the community, she explained “I know they didn’t have us starting a branch in the area as their first option,” Carlson said. “But as they found out how hard it was going to be to start on their own and that we were pretty much the only financial institution interested in setting up a branch in the area they decided to try us.” The new branch will bring benefits to the credit union and the community, Bragg explained. First, the area is not entirely new to Sharonview. The credit union already has branches based in employer facilities in two relatively nearby communities, she said. In fact, the credit union already has about 400 or 500 members who live in the community the new branch will serve, she said. Bragg also said the credit union had already moved to offer products, like IRnet and money orders in the new branch that it has not offered in other branches and that the credit union would be establishing a committee of neighborhood residents to offer advice on what sorts of other products and services area residents would need. In this category, Bragg said, might be products to compete with the high cost of payday loans and possibly some form of micro or small business loans. “We are definitely getting involved in the community, and we are looking for community feedback to help us plan the branch’s course,” she said. [email protected]

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