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LYNNWOOD, Calif. – The courtyard features a faux cobblestone walkway. A large bubbly fountain gurgles quietly near the entryway. Brightly colored walls provide a festive air. Four arched entries lead to inner sanctums. Hardly sounds like what you would expect to find at a credit union branch. But that’s exactly what one will find at SCE Federal Credit Union’s newest branch in Plaza Mexico. “It’s really, really different from a traditional financial institution,” said a beaming branch manager Alfred Galvez. “It’s really a peaceful business environment.” The credit union branch, which held a grand opening celebration in early June, was designed to blend in with the plaza and its Mexican themed architecture. “The whole flavor of the mall looks like colonial streets throughout Mexico or South America,” explained George Poitou, chief operating officer at SCEFCU. “We married the outside with the inside. We came up with a design that makes you feel like you’re in a courtyard when you enter the branch, then you enter somebody’s house. It has a big Hispanic theme but it’s very sophisticated and modern at the same time.” “Just the building itself makes the employees want to come to work,” Galvez added. The 4,200-square-foot branch currently employs three tellers, two financial officer consultants (loan officers), a receptionist and manager. The facility can accommodate six tellers and six loan officers. Developers of the plaza see the mall becoming the “pre-eminent Mexican themed shopping center” in the U.S. It is designed as a “beautiful and nostalgic monument to Mexican culture, and more importantly it will be, without equal, the best place to do business,” they say. That is what SCEFCU is hoping. As the only credit union in the town and with only a Banco Popular branch bank in the mall, SCEFCU is hoping to not only attract the large Hispanic community but to provide financial education for it and many of the plaza’s store owners as well. The credit union’s presence in the plaza will also offer an alternative to the payday lenders and check-cashing storefronts in the community. Several major banks, including Bank of America, are located in the city. SCEFCU already has a history of serving the Hispanic community and the underserved. It recently launched the non-profit Southern California Credit Union Foundation to help promote financial literacy among its goals. “We have a history of helping people in underserved communities,” Poitou pointed out. He said the challenge will be in educating the Lynnwood community about the credit union. “The problem is people are unknowledgeable about financial services in general and much less knowledgeable about credit unions and even less so about SCEFCU,” Poitou said. To address that will require constant and ongoing educational efforts, he said. “Our feeling is we have to go where the people are rather than open the doors and expect the people to come in,” Poitou said. Pascual Garrido, community and public relations manager for SCEFCU, said outreach efforts are already under way to offer financial literacy to the community. The credit union is also partnering with the plaza to conduct financial literacy workshops for the business owners, many of whom operate mom-and-pop stalls in the plaza. “I think we’re going to have a great experience here,” Garrido said. “The community has embraced us and we’re committed to the community.” One of the credit union supporters is Margaret Araujo, a 30-year resident and who is serving her 13th year as a member of the city’s Community Development Block Grant Commission. “This was perfect timing for a credit union to come in here,” she said, noting the revitalization of the area. “It will be something good for our community.” Araujo said she was looking at joining SCEFCU because its Lynnwood location was more convenient for her than the credit union where she is currently a member. Galvez, the branch manager, said the Lynnwood branch might also prove more convenient for SCEFCU members working in nearby Compton, Long Beach and Downey. Plaza Mexico attracts big crowds which are expected to grow even larger as the mall expands. Plans call for a major expansion of the plaza featuring both retail, food, office, movie theaters and residential spaces. When completed, the estimated $200 million project is expected to cover 36 acres and have more than 450,000 square feet of shops, offices and other amenities. The plaza is located in Lynnwood, a community approximately 80% Hispanic and 10% to 12% African-American. The shopping center is situated just off the 105 Freeway between downtown Los Angeles and the Los Angeles International Airport. Poitou recalled that the developers of the plaza wanted to have a credit union in the mall and were aware of SCEFCU’s involvement serving the Hispanic community and the underserved. The credit union eventually leased space in the plaza after receiving NCUA approval to provide financial services to the underserved area. Working within guidelines set by the plaza’s architects, the credit union’s courtyard hacienda-type space was created by architect/designer Anthony Rodriguez who was hired by SCEFCU. Construction was handled by C.E. Frye Construction Co., which was also hired by the credit union. “I love it,” Galvez said of the new branch. “My employees are happy. My members are happy. What else could I want.” -

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