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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Credit union steps up, takes risk in North End

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ASSINIBOINE Credit Union is the only financial institution that isn't afraid of the North End.

While the big banks are fleeing, the credit union just opened a new branch on McGregor Street, not on the outskirts of the North End but in its heart.

It's the only bit of good news for a neighbourhood largely abandoned by most financial institutions. How it happened could be a lesson.

ACU was already a key partner in the Community Financial Services Centre, an agency on Main Street that helps people without bank accounts get their finances in order, pay off any outstanding payday loans and set up an ACU account where many of the fees are waived.

Since it opened in 2006, the CFSC has helped 700 people get accounts, but it operates by referral only.

"What became clear through CFSC was that wasn't enough to serve the whole community," said Priscilla Boucher, ACU's vice-president of corporate social responsibility and community investment.

"We started looking at, 'Is it really possible to put a branch there and see it be sustainable?' "

The ACU worked on a business case and consulted with many inner-city groups. They figured if the branch could get $6 million in deposits from local businesses, non-profits and residents, it could be profitable -- maybe not as lucrative as other branches, but still worth it.

"We are willing to take less profitability on a branch to make something happen," Boucher said.

The kicker was some big cash from the University of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Foundation, which both agreed to park some of their money in the branch.

Credit unions might be the answer to the inner-city's paucity of banks. There are already three credit unions in the North End, including the Me-Dian Credit Union on Selkirk Avenue.

And, as Prof. Jerry Buckland points out in his new book, Hard Choices: Financial Exclusion, Fringe Banks and Poverty in Urban Canada, credit unions are provincially regulated, often run by democratically elected boards and tend to have a more community-minded ethos.

They already tend to offer services slightly more tailored to modest customers. All that could make them uniquely placed to tackle the problem of financial exclusion, especially if governments were willing to do what the Winnipeg Foundation and the University of Winnipeg did and provide a cushion of deposits.

ACU's McGregor branch opened at the end of January, and the manager, who lives a few blocks away, has been booked solid with appointments ever since. Eventually, the hope is to move CFSC's staff and services to the McGregor branch.

Another step, said Boucher, might be working with inner-city partners on a better model of banking services. That could even include a small, temporary loan of a few hundred bucks, which would compete with the payday loans fringe banks offer at a hefty interest rate.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 J5

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