You've heard them. Oh, how you've heard them. And held their hands. Likely extended a box of Kleenex, and then taken it back because you needed tissues yourself.
And oh, how you've felt them. Still a name, but now also part of a line entry under the headings 0-30, or 30-60, or 60+. Eventually they become the account numbers that comprise a larger, sadder number known as ALL, even though that isn't all there is to them at all. Not that there is much in the way of any such humanity during that examination, or that there really should be. It's a not-for-profit, after all, not a nonprofit.
In most cases credit unions encounter members under financial duress or in fear of pending financial strains one at a time (and thank goodness for that, at least). But last week a group of credit unions found themselves face to face with a bunch of good people, stoic as they were, who are greatly uncertain of what lies ahead for them or where they might turn. And this is the tough part; there wasn't and isn't a whole lot that credit unions could or can do for them.
Three Claims To Fame
The Maine Credit Union League held its 2011 Management Roundtable at the Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch, N.H. Dixville Notch has three claims to fame: the "notch" (pass) in the mountains that gives it half its name; the aforementioned resort, and the fact it is the first place in the nation to declare results in primaries and presidential elections.
In a tradition that began in 1960, the "town" of 75 people begins voting at midnight on Election Day in the appropriately named "Ballot Room" at the hotel. As soon as all registered voters have cast their votes, Dixville Notch becomes the first in the nation to declare a winner.
Although it seems wholly appropriate that democratically run financial institutions meet in a place that has such an aptly named room, Maine's credit unions didn't drive across their own state and into their neighbor's for the sake of symbolism. They were meeting for the same reasons credit unions meet in everywhere discuss growth strategies and solutions for common problems, while catching up with old friends and extending hands to new ones.
The Maine League also accomplished something else I have to admit is a first in the 350 or so credit union conferences I've (mostly) had the pleasure to attend: they shut down the hotel.
The Balsams (www.thebalsams.com) is one of those old-style resort properties that often have the word "grand" attached to them somehow. The part of the hotel that is called the "new wing" It was built in 1912, an addition to a building that originally opened in 1866. It's wooden; its floors squeak; and it has a postcard veranda that overlooks a lake and the mountains, which is the kind of fitting scenery one expects when lounging in Adirondack chairs. The walls of the old hallways are full of photos of famous guests (a good number testify that fame is indeed fleeting).
If such a thing can be, the Balsams is musty in a good way. Like a few other grand places, the Balsams clings to a tradition that requires men to wear a jacket after 6 p.m. in the dining room (designed by the same man who did a similar room on the Titanic), and while that may strike some as old-fashioned, frankly it's a pretty pleasant change from say, Orlando, and a sunburned slob in flip-flops at the next table over who is wiping his barbecue-frothed lips on the sleeve of his two-sizes-too-small-to-contain his gut T-shirt that reads "Fear The Beer." It's not the beer we fear, pal.
But for all its dignity, the Balsams is also somewhat remote, and the excellent service comes with a price: it can be expensive. (Rest easy, Maine's CUs got a very good room rate.) The grand lady and its 7,700 surrounding acres are in need of a makeover, and the economy hasn't done any favors for this remaining sentinel in a chain hotel world. A recent deal to sell the hotel fell through, before new buyers were announced just as the Maine credit unions were checking in.
The new owners closed the hotel effective with the last day of the Maine League's meeting (one person I met who planned to spend an extra day was told to check out). Plans are to close the property for at least nine months while $12 million in renovation work is done. For the 300 or so employees, many of them long-time vets, there will be no work-or any hope of finding anything else locally.
I listened as one guest asked a valet what his plans were. The valet didn't say anything-he just shrugged while smiling and asking how he might meet the guest's needs.
Word is the new owners hope to rehire many of the employees. But those are just words. I have no idea what financial fallback plans the staff has made. I fear, however, that few have squirreled away enough savings to get them through the next nine months. Let's hope they can find a CU that might be able to return a bit of the service those employees have been giving all these years.
After all, everyone needs more direction in life than just a shrug.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org