The American Heritage Federal Credit Union is the first new bank to open in Wissinoming in over a decade.
A lot of times, businesses face at least some community opposition when they seek to open a 4,800-square-foot store with a drive-through window, a big parking lot and lots of traffic going in and out.
But the American Heritage Federal Credit Union encountered no such challenges when it converted an old commercial property at Bridge Street and Harbison Avenue into a new branch.
The community has welcomed the credit union with open arms.
That’s mainly because the neighborhood surrounding the site has been a virtual desert for financial institutions for more than a decade, according to community leaders.
“We missed out on the convenience of local banking and having offices there, someone to talk to and maybe some guidance on financial issues,” said Robert Jacobs, president of the Wissinoming Civic Association.
The branch opened to the public on July 18. The last bank of any kind in Wissinoming closed about 15 years ago.
“There was a bank on Howell Street [at Torresdale Avenue],” said Jacobs. “It was around for like a hundred years and closed. Now, it’s a collection agency. That was for Wissinoming. That was our bank.
“Farther up [Torresdale], there was a bank that’s now a Sovereign and another bank that’s now a PNC. But that was our bank.”
Truth be told, the new American Heritage branch is in very much a gray area, neighborhood-wise. According to the City Planning Commission, Jacobs says, it’s part of Wissinoming. Meanwhile, some folks call it Frankford. The site is mere blocks from Bridesburg in one direction and Port Richmond in another.
But any way you slice it, the area has long been underserved financially, credit union officials believe. That was one of its attractions for them.
“There are a lot of companies here, small businesses around the community that [weren’t] being served. We’ve been approaching them and they’re looking for loans and lower-cost services,” said Bruce Foulke, American Heritage’s CEO.
Plus, the credit union identified a need among its existing members. With 120,000 members in all, American Heritage ranks 155th among the nation’s 8,000 credit unions, according to Foulke, and it continues to grow.
“We have a lot of members in this area and a lot who live in New Jersey and go to our main office on Red Lion Road. This is more convenient to them with the [Tacony-Palmyra] Bridge and [Interstate] 95,” the CEO said.
Perhaps in spite of conventional wisdom, American Heritage executives see opportunity in communities like Wissinoming, which often are referred to as “distressed” or “low-income.” Factors like unemployment, crime rates and poorly maintained properties often discourage new business investment in neighborhoods.
Among its prior incarnations, the new credit union site used to be a seafood store and a car dealership. At one point, someone ran a hot dog cart on the lot.
“I think [other financial institutions] don’t understand the people that live in these areas,” Foulke said. “Our Hunting Park and Parkside offices are our busiest areas. People like coming into a nice place and will want to do business with us.”
About four years ago, American Heritage first expanded into the Bridesburg area when it acquired the Bridesburg Community Credit Union. The credit union closed the smaller and older Bridesburg branch when it opened at Bridge and Harbison, about four blocks from the former location.
American Heritage invested $1.4 million to acquire and rehab the Bridge Street property. The facility evokes the credit union’s trademark colonial style on the outside and provides bright modernity on the inside.
A live greeter welcomes patrons, who may do their banking at the free computer “café” or with a live teller. The teller queue is lined with high-top desks so members can fill out checks or deposit slips as they wait for the next available window.
Although bulletproof glass separates tellers from the floor, it’s decorative and designed so that voices aren’t muffled when they pass from one side to the other. The branch has a small children’s play area, a free coin counting station and a station that measures blood pressure.
“I like the family atmosphere here. Everybody is really nice,” said member Michael Hickey of Port Richmond. “I like the computers. You can check some of your other stuff like Facebook and Twitter. It’s almost like a coffee shop.”
The new branch has been attracting about 40 new members to the credit union each week. American Heritage officials and community leaders hope the branch will be a magnet for other new development in the neighborhood.
“The feeling is that it will cause a resurgence in the area,” said branch manager Rich Padulese. “Other businesses will move onto the block. [Patrons] feel like other banks have abandoned them.”
“I think [the business community] needed to see some stabilization and I think that’s happening now,” Jacobs said. “I think we’ve turned a corner. There’s a lot of things happening in the neighborhood.”
The branch is one of 24 that American Heritage operates in Philadelphia, Bucks and Montgomery counties. ••
Visit www.amhfcu.org or call 800-342-0008 for information about American Heritage Federal Credit Union.
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org