Taking The CU Message DOWNTOWN

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The term "underserved areas" sometimes means more than just a segment of the population. Occasionally, the geographic region needs support as much as its residents.

Those twin targets were behind the service initiative for Eagle Louisiana Federal Credit Union when it undertook its service initiative as much on behalf of the city of Baton Rouge, La., as it did for residents.

Eagle Federal, founded in 1942 to serve employees of what was then known as the Welfare Department, had always been focused on serving government agencies. When the opportunity opened up to serve an underserved population segment while helping revitalize the city's downtown, the $63-million credit union jumped at the chance, according to Ginger Mamit, Eagle Federal's president and chief executive officer.

"Much of the downtown was considered a low-income area, especially along the Mississippi River," said Mamit. "As the seat of the state government, we wanted a more vital city center and this enabled us to help the effort."

Starting Small

Eagle Federal started small, targeting an area of downtown Baton Rouge the credit union felt it could serve. Fees already were low and the credit union focused on sharing information with residents and marketing the institution's services, said Lisa Westfall, Eagle Federal's vice president of marketing.

Eagle Federal used newspaper ads, then billboards to get the message out that the credit union could serve a broader area of members thanks to its status as one of the National Credit Union Administration's designated underserved providers. Representatives even knocked on doors in neighborhoods surrounding downtown to talk about credit union services, Mamit said.

"We were working hard to build long-term relationships rather than just add odd accounts here and there," said Mamit. "We worked closely with the city's downtown development district in building a name for ourselves."

The plan worked and credit union membership grew. As Eagle Federal became more comfortable with the program, the credit union also began adding different census tracts, finally expanding its underserved service area to 30 different tracts in downtown Baton Rouge.

Based on their success in the city, Eagle Federal entered two very different underserved areas. Within the last six months, the credit union has taken on East Baton Rouge Parish and East Feliciana Parish, primarily rural areas with a high concentration of lower socio-economic members. In the context of this new and different environment, the credit union had to find new ways to conduct its business, Mamit said. "We had to look hard at our services and how we were getting our message out," said Mamit.

One of the first steps the credit union took was to reduce its membership fee from $25 to $5 to make membership more accessible to more members.

The credit union also introduced "checkless checking" through use of debit cards to help increase service availability and an ATM partnership to expand its service profile. Both had a trickle-down effect to the rest of the membership, all of whom benefited from the credit union's adjustments to serving the underserved, said Mamit.

"It put a breath of fresh air in the credit union as a whole," she said.

Eagle Federal also added lessons in financial literacy to its service agenda for its new underserved areas and is exploring more real estate lending options.

Next On The Horizon

The credit union also is looking at offering business loans and opening business accounts as well as adding a lot of convenience items to its product mix. It's all part of Eagle Federal's plans to grow closer to the new communities and areas they're now serving, said Mamit.

"We're trying to become involved and be present at both school and community events and let community leaders know that we're here," Mamit said. "We want to offer everyday services for everyday living."

One of the focal points for this expansion is the city of Zachary, La., the county seat for East Feliciana Parish. With a population of 20,000, Zachary offers the greatest opportunity, both for credit union growth and service expansion. Add an additional 8,000 from the surrounding area and there's even more opportunity, Mamit said.

Such opportunity requires new and different initiatives for Eagle Federal than the credit union pursued when it expanded its service area in downtown Baton Rouge, but at the credit union's core those services have more similarities than differences, said Mamit. "If we support the communities' success, we believe it will help us succeed," Mamit said.

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