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COULEE DAM, Wash. -The splashy headlines from Bank of America about acquiring Delaware credit card giant MBNA don’t mean much in rural Washington State where the news is more about credit unions filling the void left by BofA closing branches and leaving bankless towns with the prospect of economic decay. “You know when you become the only financial institution in a county of 7,500, you take on an awful lot of responsibility and it’s not as though we’re not ready but there could be problems,” confides David Schmidt, president of the $60 million Coulee Dam FCU. For one thing, Washington law bars municipalities and public agencies from depositing funds in any but an FDIC-insured institution, creating nightmarish problems for any number of communities but most immediately for Republic, a town of 1,000 and the Ferry County seat. Coulee Dam FCU has one of its seven offices in Republic and now that branch is the only financial institution in that northeast Washington community. “Having that Republic branch looks on the surface like a great opportunity for us,” declared Schmidt, “but you know when there is no competition, businesses and individuals look to your institution” to drive the community’s economic growth. BofA which announced in June it was closing 100 branches in small towns across the West because of “low volume” and poor profits plans to shutter the Republic branch Sept. 9 followed up with another nearby closing in Okonogan Sept. 15. Schmidt said he has been meeting for weeks with civic leaders in Republic and Okonogan and other rural towns to figure out ways the CU can be helpful in handling public deposit, courier services and basic financial needs of businesses and individuals in the communities. The Washington Credit Union League has pointedly noted ironies in that the BofA moves come amidst the CURIA debate in Congress in which the banking lobby argues CUs are over-reaching on commercial lending while at the same time banks leave towns without loan access. Rural papers across Washington State have also picked up on the BofA closings with the News Miner in Republic carrying stories, letters to the editor and cartoons discussing the BofA closing with one headline reading “Loss of Ferry County’s Only Commercial Bank Affects Government Financing.” “I’m getting many letters to the editor on this and we did have one cartoon which pointed out BofA spending $3.2 billion in China but could not keep this tiny branch here,” declared Richard Graham, owner of the newspaper. “Bank of America never even announced it was closing the branch-we all learned about it when we got notices in the mail.” Graham said he has been in touch with Schmidt of the CU and printed one of his letters to the public assuring citizens that deposits are insured by NCUA ala the FDIC. One article cited problems now in recruiting new businesses to Republic including what might happen to a Massachusetts producer of photo equipment which had planned to add 90 new jobs in this mining and timber community with the highest unemployment rate in the state – over 22.5%. Schmidt said despite those numbers the Republic branch has long been a good producer for Coulee Dam and remains profitable. The Coulee Dam CEO said communities like Republic have long witnessed a succession of bank mergers with the old Seattle First Bank operating the Republic branch until Seattle First was bought out by BofA. Schmidt said he has been in touch with regulators about how his CU might help out those public agencies as well as school boards in handling funds. He also is making plans to help out businesses and residents of Okonogan, “and on that we’re looking at an extension into Okonogan through our branch at Omak.” Regarding press coverage of the closings, the Seattle Times last month ran a feature story about the dilemma faced by both Republic and Darrington, a logging and mill community of roughly 3,000, where BofA is shuttering the town’s only bank also on Sept. 9. The story cited the 30 miles Darrington residents will have to travel to find a bank with the 71-year-old mayor, Joyce Jones, worrying about elderly residents getting services, government deposits and the impact on tourist business of music festivals in the community. The story quoted a BofA spokesman in Chicago listing the Washington towns of Okanogan, Republic, Sumas and Sultan all losing their branches and suggesting the public start using ATMs in some of the communities “or do banking on the Internet.” -

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