BRIDGETON, Mo. - Just as a recent General Accounting Officereport claims more credit unions than ever are doing less to servemoderate and low-income households, residents of an Illinoiscommunity "held hostage" by check-cashing stores and bank fees willnow have access to a plethora of financial services thanks to arecent credit union merger. "Held hostage" is the terminologyVantage CU President/CEO Hubert Hoosman used to describe thefinancial stranglehold banks and check cashers have on residents ofEast St. Louis. Executives at Vantage Credit Union, the fourthlargest credit union in Missouri with 67,000 members and $447million in assets, could have sat by and watched tiny St. ClairCounty Teachers Credit Union (SCCTCU) buckle under the weight ofmember bankruptcies and a non-existent succession plan since theCEO was set to retire after 30 years at the helm. Instead,Vantage's Board made the decision to step in and merge SCCTCU, a$4.2 million credit union serving 3,200 members comprised of schooldistrict and city employees, into its operation, said HubertHoosman, Vantage president/CEO. The merger is unique since Vantageis based in Bridgeton, Missouri and St. Clair's home base is inEast St. Louis, Illinois. "Unfortunately, East St. Louis has beenpainted in a negative light," Hoosman said. "There are hard-workingpeople who live and work here" who want affordable financialservices, he added, pointing out that at 14%, SCCTCU is awell-capitalized credit union with a "viable" membership. Hoosmansaid St. Clair had looked at several credit unions to potentiallymerge with but all were not interested in having a presence in EastSt. Louis, a "low-income" community in Illinois. Discussions beganin June, the respective boards approved the merger in August, andNCUA granted the approval in late October. The merger is scheduledto be complete on Dec. 1. SCCTCU's three employees not only will beretained but also received "substantial" raises and more benefits,Hoosman said. In his pre-merger research, Hoosman discovered thatnearly 1,043 residents in St. Clair and a neighboring county wereVantage members. With a potential 6,000 members in St. ClairCounty, Vantage is considering opening more branches there. Thecredit union currently has nine branches and a tenth is scheduledto open in January 2004. News of the merger comes on the heels ofVantage's one-year anniversary since changing its name fromEducational Employees Credit Union. Nearly 3,200 new members openedaccounts since Vantage's official name change on Oct. 1, 2002. Heestimates that less than 20 accounts closed as a result of the newname, mostly from "tenured members" who felt the credit unionshould keep the EECU moniker. "EECU is an icon in the area and wewanted to be sure people were comfortable with the change," Hoosmansaid. [email protected]

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