MONROE, La. – With the end of its federal designation in sight, the Ouachita Enterprise Community (OEC) wants to leave a lasting impact on the economically disadvantaged geographic area it has served for the last 10 years. The organization will do that, it hopes, by obtaining a federal charter for a community credit union with a low-income designation. The OEC is an organization that was established in 1994, as part of the Clinton Administration’s Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community program, to administer federal funding for community revitalization and development efforts in Ouachita Parish. One of the criteria for being selected as an “Enterprise Community” was the area’s high poverty rate. Funding for the program will expire at the end of 2004, and OEC is currently restructuring the agency to sustain itself beyond the Federal Empowerment Zone designation. Regardless, OEC believes establishing a credit union would keep the organization’s goals moving forward into the future. “A credit union could meet a key economic need for the impoverished people in Ouachita Parish,” said Khasi Reitzell, executive director of the Ouachita Enterprise Community. “Many residents here do not have access to mainstream financial services.” The only financial institutions in the area are major banking entities, and their services are not tailored to a large part of the population, Reitzell said. “Close to 15% of the people in this area have annual incomes of $10,000 to $15,000, and they are not being served. They don’t have checking accounts, and they can’t qualify for loans. The data we’re getting back suggests that in fact these people are actually targets of many predatorial types – they have to use check cashing places to cash their paychecks and take out payday loans just to get by.” OEC Board Member Tom Nicholson chairs the 12-person steering committee exploring the possibility of chartering a credit union. He is a former bank CEO and previously spearheaded the bank’s community reinvestment activities for six years. Nicholson confirmed Reitzell’s assessment. “It is difficult for banks to provide adequate and substantive service to this demographic group and remain viable. When OEC’s consultant floated the idea of a credit union in the area, I was immediately captivated by the potential.” The Metro Statistical Area encompassing Ouachita Parish has a total population of 150,000; the Parish’s two chief cities, Monroe and West Monroe, account for less than half that figure. Nicholson characterized southern Monroe, the low-income section, by saying, “This is the older section, the original core area, of town,” he said. “It is heavily residential with a significant number of rental properties and transients. The classic mental image of economic development is a community recruiting businesses, businesses hiring employees from the community, which in turn, boosts the economy. That’s not going to happen here. There is very little business here and not a lot of developable property.” “The goal of the OEC is to help people within the target area become more economically self-sufficient,” Nicholson continued. “A credit union would offer citizens access to financial services they otherwise would not have. This is an important step in becoming more self sufficient.” The OEC has submitted a letter of interest to the National Credit Union Administration and currently is distributing surveys to measure support for a credit union: in City of Monroe employee paychecks; in local churches and businesses; at a radio remote broadcast, during which the OEC served free hamburgers and hot dogs; and at a community meeting held Sept. 8. The OEC would fund initial credit union operations through a $150,000 grant. The community has expressed excitement about the possibility of a credit union, according to Reitzell. “Surveys indicate that if we get the charter, people would definitely join. We need 250 completed surveys to submit to the NCUA, but we want to get 1,000. We have 575 so far,” Reitzell said. Nicholson said it’s too early to define what services members of the community need most, but he doesn’t expect to see a huge demand for small business loans. “The Enterprise Community has had a small business loan program up and running for some time. It’s a small program. Not many have applied, and even fewer have qualified.” Both Reitzell and Nicholson expressed hope that the establishment of a credit union might further spark bank community reinvestment activity in the area. “In addition to the OEC grant, we would be requesting other pledges from the community. Maybe banks will see that this is an important project that they could be involved with to meet CRA requirements.” If the OEC succeeds with its plans, the credit union would be the first chartered in Louisiana in more than 20 years, according to Louisiana Credit Union League’s Alicia Toups. The most recent new charter, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Credit Union, was in 1983. Nicholson said the OEC is slightly behind its original timeline, but anticipates they could receive a charter by early 2004. “Getting the charter is no big deal, the real work comes after that,” Nicholson said. -

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