Dollars & sense for the community

AH­FCU mem­ber Mi­chael Hickey checks his funds on a com­puter in the lobby of the bank. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

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 “caf&ea­cute;” 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. ••

Vis­it­h­ or call 800-342-0008 for in­form­a­tion about Amer­ic­an Her­it­age Fed­er­al Cred­it Uni­on.

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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