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It was an inauspicious opening for one of the most visible credit union projects ever.

Hundreds of credit union dignitaries from around the country, including CEOs, league presidents and their legislators, were scheduled to meet a couple of blocks from the U.S. Capitol to dedicate a monument, of sorts, to the credit union movement. The project, named Credit Union House, was to be a meeting place for the credit union movement and its congressional representatives where the proud heritage of credit unions would be on display.

That day, of course, Sept. 11, 2001, was a tragic one for America. And after the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center, everything was shut down: Wall Street, the federal government and the airports across the country, necessitating a rescheduling of the opening of the new credit union landmark.

"A lot of people who were flying in got stranded-in Colorado, in California," recalled Susan Newton, executive director of CU House, of the infamous day. Instead of a grand opening, a handful of those people who could make it gathered the following day for a solemn luncheon, while the grand opening was pushed off until the next month.

The timing was unfortunate to dedicate what will surely be remembered as one of the great memorials to credit unions. For the facility, with a view of the Capitol, has become both a key meeting place for credit unions and for lawmakers, who now use it regularly to conduct all kinds of business. Last year, there were more than 100 events held at the House, just three blocks from the Capitol, including credit union meetings with Congress, CUNA's Hike the Hill visits, congressional fundraisers for both parties, credit union board meetings, board planning sessions, and receptions.

Many of the biggest players in Washington have been seen stopping by Credit Union House, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate President Bill Frist, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and congressional credit union champion Paul Kanjorski. Even White House political guru Karl Rove has utilized the confines of CU House.

According to Newton, more than 300 members of Congress have visited CU House since its inception five years ago. Some members have held their staff planning sessions at the site. One, Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME) flew in Maine lobsters for a traditional New England clambake for his staff retreat. There were testimonial lunches for NCUA Board members Dennis Dollar, then later Deborah Matz, and a small business lending summit.

"One of the reasons for Credit Union House was to elevate credit unions in the minds of policymakers," said Newton. "We've exceeded beyond our expectations."

The project got its start during the latter days of the Campaign for Consumer Choice, the 1996-98 effort to get HR 1151, the CU Membership Access Act, passed, when the credit union movement was struggling to organize its lobbying assault on Capitol Hill.

"During 1151 we did not have a regular meeting spot and it was rather hellacious, I remember, every few days because hotels were booked. We were told we could meet on Monday at the Capitol Hilton, on Tuesday we were in a townhouse we rented on the Hill, on Wednesday we were somewhere else," recalled CUNA President Dan Mica, who developed the idea based on Florida House, a similar facility Mica had used while a Florida congressman.

"And I remember talking to a few league presidents and saying, 'You know this is crazy. We have such a large number of grassroots, we ought to have a permanent spot. And it can't be your office. You can't have large numbers of people kind of hanging around the office all day. You ought to have some kind of facility.

"My vision," said Mica, "was a permanent place for credit unions on Capitol Hill."

So Mica brought his idea later that year, 1998, to the Association of CU Leagues, who were quick to embrace it. "Carroll Beach (then president of the Colorado CU League) passed around a sheet of paper and put down a pledge and before you knew it, the leagues had pledged over a million (dollars) to the project," explained Bob Walls, president of the New Jersey CU League and chairman of the CU House Board.

Pretty soon the project began to take shape. The leagues raised more than $4 million, which they used to buy a prime plot of undeveloped property at the crossroads of Capitol Hill, at 403 C St., Northeast. There they built a four-story, 6,000-square-foot structure, with a roof terrace. Because the neighborhood is an historic preservation district it had to comply with certain requirements to fit and be approved by the Washington, D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, as well as the neighborhood advisory commission. Halfway through construction, the leagues and CUNA decided they may need more space down the road and decided to acquire the adjacent building for another $1 million. That building, attached to CU House, is leased to the Sierra Club.

The CU House is decorated with historic and regional photos and paintings. As a visitor enters he is met by a painting of the Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol.

Climbing the stairway to the second and third-floors you will see paintings by local artist Margaret Huddy of each of the 50 state flowers. Huddy's work is well-known around Washington and adorns the nearby Supreme Court and other government buildings, as well as CUNA's offices. Reproductions of the state flower pieces will be sold at this year's GAC.

Throughout the second and third floors are photos depicting credit union history: of credit union forefathers Edward Filene and Roy Bergengren; of the historic 1934 meeting of the credit union leadership in Estes Park, Colo.; of President Roosevelt signing the Federal CU Act. And of various presidents signing legislation of importance to credit unions, topped off by a Credit Union Journal photo of President Clinton adding his name to HR 1151 while flanked by the leaders of the credit union movement.

The facility has office space along with Internet access and telephones for use as a potential "war room" the next time credit unions are required to gather on Capitol Hill. It also features a teleconferencing hook-up, donated by CUNA Mutual Group, which members of Congress have already used to broadcast town hall-like meetings back home to their constituents.

The credit union movement is invited to visit and use the facility, according to Newton. For an annual contribution of $15,000, used to defray the operating costs, credit unions can use the House for a board or planning session. Several credit unions have already done this. Or, for a fee of $300 a credit can rent the House out.

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