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BARTOW, Fla. – High tech meets high touch in a big way at the new Community First Credit Union branch in Bartow. The colorful, 4,300-square-foot facility houses not just a full-service retail financial service office, but a coffee shop with wireless Internet access, inside and outside seating and a breakfast and lunch menu. “There’s even a drive-up window, so members can place their order while conducting their transaction at the credit union window and then pick up their order when they pull up to the caf,” says John Santarpia, president of the $108 million, 11,500-member credit union. Santarpia joined Community First in January 2003 after managing the Department of Veterans Affairs FCU in Washington, D.C. Community First is based in Mulberry and also has a branch in Winter Haven, with plans to possibly expand to Lakeland and Haines City. Santarpia speaks with obvious pride and excitement about the new Bartow office. “It looks like it’s two stories, but really it’s just one, with 22-foot ceilings and a big, open feel. And there’s a 92-inch projection screen so people can watch while they’re inside the credit union, or say they’re waiting the five minutes it takes to get a loan approved, well they can watch the plasma screen TV inside the caf, where, by the way, members get 10% off,” he says. The branch also includes what the CU calls the Learning Center, a protected but very visible area equipped for young children to play and learn while the adults conduct their business. Inside, state-of-the-of-the-art security cameras provide images of every teller interaction, to settle disputes and watch for fraudulent people and transactions, while an optical disk storage system from Reed Data is used to scan driver’s licenses and other identification cards to help protect the credit union and its members from potential identity theft and other problems. Outside, security cameras on swivels sense when someone is using a door or a drive-through ATM and swing in to focus. And even the light switches and thermostats are Internet-enabled and controllable from the credit union’s home office back in Mulberry. All this high tech is set to music, of course. “We wanted to pipe in some nice music, not Muzak, so we have XM Satellite with some very good speakers that actually are part of the ceiling tile, so you hear it but might wonder where the sound is coming from,” Santarpia says. “I know this sounds like a lot, but I also know there are hundreds of financial institutions in our area, and why would someone want to switch and stay with us? Because we are doing more than simply providing them a place to make a withdrawal and leave,” Santarpia says. “I think we’re offering an experience that no other financial institution has in the past,” he says. “Where else can you drop your kids off at the Learning Center, deposit or withdraw money, buy stamps, apply for a loan and have breakfast on the patio all in one visit?” The Community Caf also will offer meeting space to civic, government and other groups, and “we are planning some kind of movie night where kids can come in on Saturday evening and watch a G-rated movie like `Shrek 2′ and get popcorn, sodas and the like,” Santarpia says. “We also are planning seminars as well as bringing in people to read stories to children,” he says. Deep community involvement is nothing new to this CU. Community First was in the path of three of the four hurricanes that ripped through Florida last year and went through a lot of effort to be the longest to stay open as the storms approached and the first to re-open after they passed. The Mulberry office, meanwhile, served as a haven during and after the storms because it has a backup diesel generator and 500-gallon tank. “Some of our employees live in mobile homes, and we had people staying in our building during the first storm,” Santarpia says. “We also were the only financial institution open in town for a while. “That caused a run here, of course, because we’ve become such a cashless society and when there’s no electricity, ATMs and credit cards and debit cards and check cards are useless.” Community First also waived ATM fees for non-members and went through about $1 million in cash withdrawals before power was restored around town, in three days in the case of the Mulberry office. “We had to help. People needed us,” Santarpia says, adding that his CU’s corporate, Southeast Corporate FCU, also chipped in by “sending us emergency shipment of cash for the second hurricane, and they offered us diesel fuel. They were very pro-active. But as things turned out, we didn’t need it.” -

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