60 Miles, 80 People

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For most credit unions, picking up and serving a field of membership 60 miles away would create few problems. The distance might cause some inconvenience, but in this era of super highways the whole thing is, well, manageable.

Take that concept to rural Alaska and the story is a little different. When the credit union is on Alaska's Baranoff Island and the field of membership in question can only be reached by boat or airplane, service can be downright challenging.

And given the fact that this particular field of membership consists of just 81 people, one might question the rationale and even the common sense of taking on so small a group. For Sandy Jones, however, the question was never asked.

Jones is chief executive officer of ALPS Federal Credit Union in Sitka, Alaska. She never gave it a second thought when credit union member John Lawson retired 60 miles away to the rural fishing village of Port Alexander and wanted to take his credit union with him. It seemed to her like a natural thing to do, especially since by National Credit Union Administration standards-or anyone else's, for that matter-this was an area that was clearly underserved.

Lawson retired last year from Alaska Lumber & Pulp Co., the employer group ALPS FCU was chartered to serve in 1960 and moved to Port Alexander, a fishing village with an ocean-front view and not much else. The population of 81-which booms by as much as 25% during the summer fishing season-had little in the way of basic services. There were no bank branches and certainly no credit unions. From a financial services standpoint, Port Alexander was about as underserved as a market could be.

When Lawson came to Sitka to shop, visit his doctor and take care of other basic services, he would stop and visit the credit union and talk to Jones.

"He would talk about how great his credit union was to his new neighbors and they wanted to know if they could join, too," Jones said.

Jones got approval from NCUA and began serving the remote outpost this past March. Her challenges are more physical than they are fiscal, she said.

"Port Alexander has telephone lines but they claim they don't have Internet access," Jones said. "We can serve them by mail."

Before ALPS could do that, however, the credit union had to be introduced to community members so they could get an idea what the institution had to offer. There's no newspaper to advertise in, no billboards to post marketing messages, and certainly no possibilities for a branch.

Instead, Jones sent a letter to Lawson, an assemblyman in the community, welcoming its residents to the credit union field of membership. Lawson became the credit union's ambassador to its newly adopted community and has been spreading the word about the credit union, Jones said. So far, none have joined, but Jones doesn't see that as a problem.

"I plan to travel to Port Alexander this summer because I think it's important to meet as many of the residents as I can," Jones said.

Providing The Basics

Of course, she'll have to fly the short distance in a private plane because there are no roads connecting Sitka to Port Alexander. In fact, there are relatively few surfaces that pass for roads in the community itself and none of the residents own cars, she said.

What ALPs hopes to do is provide basic savings and checking services for Port Alexander residents. Since there are no cars and the credit union doesn't make real estate loans outside of Sitka, there may be little loan activity in their new field of membership. What little loan demand there is will likely be for fishing boats and all-terrain vehicles, the only way to get around on land.

That's not really a problem for Jones, who anticipates little uptick in terms of operating costs to serve the new market. "I think the community has basic financial services needs, but we may want to send someone down there to inspect any boats that they want to buy," Jones said.

That will require time and some cost for the credit union officer, but most of the rest of the business will be done by mail. Port Alexander is slated to receive Internet service by year-end, which will put ALPS in even better position to provide service, she said.

At 81 people, the addition of Port Alexander doesn't even represent a 1% increase in the $35-million credit union's membership base of 9,000, but when Jones looks at Port Alexander, it's not with the idea of asset growth in mind.

"Until now they had no financial service provider, and I don't see them in a position to grow," she said.

For the board and executives at ALPS, serving Port Alexander is in keeping with the credit union philosophy of bringing services to members who need it most. Financial growth from serving this segment is secondary, if even that, Jones said. On the heels of Port Alexander, NCUA has approached ALPS about serving another underserved area-the larger, more tourist-oriented community of Skagway. The community falls into other credit unions' fields of membership but as of yet none has built a branch there. "If we would go to Skagway, we would need to build a branch and I don't think we're ready for that yet," Jones said.

ALPS would rather concentrate on a computer upgrade scheduled for later this year and the implementation of Internet banking. That, and providing service to the fishing village of Port Alexander, is all the credit union needs right now, Jones said.

"They are what they are, and we're happy to serve them," Jones said.

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