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Islanders move love and money to their own credit union

Fed up with corporate indifference, a green haven in Puget Sound, Wash., finds a novel way to snub big banks.

May 04, 2012|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

A community survey showed widespread enthusiasm, but then the four-member steering committee began crunching numbers. It needed at least $1 million up front to insure the deposits and guarantee the first two years of expenses.

"We got to this crossroads where we either needed an angel or a partner. And as organizers, we were not interested in creating models where you need an angel, or are only successful in highly privileged communities," Moyer said.

That's when they hit on the idea of joining Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union, which had originally served employees of the Seattle-area electrical utility. Its bylaws allowed the organizing committee to get an initial three seats on the board of directors — giving the Vashon community a voice.

Further, the credit union endorsed the idea of allowing nonprofit groups to use their own savings to guarantee microlending on community projects.

"They were already doing the most aggressive energy conservation lending in the state," Harmon said. "That's when all the bells went off for me and Bill, because it took us right back to the genesis of the conversation."

The stroke of genius, as the organizers saw it, was luring Wagner — then manager at the local Chase bank — to oversee the new branch. "The hippies didn't have to be in charge," Moyer said.

Deposits flew in the door. Loans — the real source of income for financial institutions — have been slower to materialize. The credit union offers auto loans for as low as 2.99% and credit cards for 8.99%. Home mortgages go for 4% over 30 years.

About $6.5 million in home loans have been written on the island, and about $2 million in other kinds of loans — a smaller loan-to-share ratio than the credit union's executives would like to see.

"It's easier to move deposits than debt, frankly," Chief Executive Kevin Ellisen said. "We understood that would be the case. But we're seeing growth in first mortgage loans, in energy efficiency loans on the island, so we're comfortable with the mix right now."


One of the new loan clients was local bartender Jamie Clapperton. She and her husband both had steady jobs. But a local commercial bank told them they couldn't have a credit card with more than a $300 limit.

"It felt like a slap in the face," Clapperton said. "The credit union had just opened up, and we took all our savings out that day, and we said, 'OK, we're going to go across the street.' We had asked [the bank] before for a loan for a car, and they said, 'Sorry, we can't make that happen.' … Within two weeks, we had a car loan set up; we were able to go get a new car."

Clapperton said she and her husband were stunned: "They were, like, so willing to help people who want to live on this island, who want to grow here. It felt, I don't know, amazing. Like we were finally being rewarded for something."

Moyer, whose last job before becoming a community organizer was as a drummer, now finds himself sitting on the board of a bank — he got one of Vashon's seats on the credit union's governing board.

"I'll tell you, I'm learning a lot about this whole financial institution thing," he said. "But this was never one of those projects where you're rolling the rock up the mountain. From the beginning, we were chasing the boulder down the mountain. People were interested immediately."

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