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FRESNO, Calif. – A group of residents in the poorest parts of Fresno, California, says it will persevere in its attempt to obtain a credit union branch for their neighborhood even though their first attempt has fallen through. “We aren’t giving up at all, far from it,” said Keith Kelley, executive director with the Fresno West Coalition for Economic Development. “We’re actually very optimistic about our eventual success.” Kelley, and Jarah Euston, the VISTA Volunteer in charge of the group’s credit union project, explained that their confidence rests on the conviction that their part of town, West Fresno, has many resources that have been overlooked in the past. Kelley pointed out that the area, home to 35,000 Fresno residents, abuts an industrial park and a growing business corridor and has had a history of surprising observers with its economic vitality, even amidst its poverty. The supermarket that anchors a major shopping mall in the area is one of the highest grossing stores that the chain has in California, after many observers predicted it would fold for lack of business, Kelley said. Kelley can feel sentimental about that supermarket because convincing a supermarket chain to come into the neighborhood was the cause that spurred the residents of the area to organize and form the West Fresno group 10 years ago. After the supermarket opened its store in 1999, Kelley reported, the group naturally turned to attracting financial services to the area that could bring some needed loans and small business capital. There are two bank branches which, as the crow flies, are not that far from the area but which both lie on the other side of a major freeway, observed Euston. The group decided that a credit union was what the area needed, she added. But the group soon found that attaining that goal would not be easy. Starting their own credit union would take years and require far more capital than the area could come up with easily and, once begun, the credit union might take a long time to grow to a size where it could be really useful to its members in the area. “That’s when we decided to try to attract an established credit union,” Euston explained. So far, she reported, all the credit unions in Fresno have been open to the possibility of starting a branch in the area and very interested in sitting down to “run the numbers” with her. But the credit union that the group has first hoped would start a branch, the $1.1 billion Educational Employees Credit Union, based in Fresno, finally backed out of the proposal after the California legislature failed to pass a law that would have allowed it to offer services, such as check cashing for a fee, to non-members. The problem was that the state-chartered credit union’s field of membership would have been too restrictive to have allowed the credit union to serve many of the area’s residents, Euston explained. State-chartered credit unions in California face a more difficult time adding lower income areas, Euston added, noting that West Fresno has taken its effort to a federally chartered credit union in Fresno that has expressed an interest. The effort has also received a boost by being chosen by the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute to be one of the four groups around the country eligible for technical assistance from the Institute in its effort to attract a mainstream credit union. “This group was on the top of our list of organizations we wanted to help,” Williams said. “They have a lot of persistence and experience going for them and we believe that they are well placed to eventually attract a branch.” Woodstock and the group are exploring perhaps phasing in a credit union branch, Williams reported. Such a branch would start perhaps not offering cash or offering another limited set of products until finally coming up to full speed. But whether a phased in branch or not, Euston remains committed to the idea of the credit union. “We definitely believe we can do this,” she said. -

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