BLOOMINGTON, Ill.-Residents of this city's troubled west side finally have access to mainstream financial services, thanks to a unique partnership between a credit union and a church.

Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, a fixture in West Bloomington for more than three generations, is renting space to Mid-Illini Credit Union. The new, full-service branch of the CU, which opened in February, is seeking to help break the destructive grip payday lenders and check cashers have on this neighborhood.

Business Development Manager Cranston Sparks, a member of the church, played a key role in the arrangement. He said he was aware of the church pastor's desire to someday have Mt. Pisgah start a credit union, and the credit union has long been aware of West Bloomington's need for a CU. "I just spoke to the pastor one day about the opportunity and things moved forward from there. It has become the perfect partnership."

There are no financial institutions within more than a one-mile radius of the church, the cornerstone of this community, said Sparks. "The church is the nucleus for all that is right in this area. For example, the church stopped the sale of alcohol here. Alcohol had been a big problem in this neighborhood."


Filling 'The Gap'

The area is also referred to as "The Gap," not only because it is comprised of the neighborhoods of Gridley, Allin and Prickett, but because it is a community in need of attention from Bloomington. The freeway separates this lower-income neighborhood- filled with old historic buildings and now many low-income housing and low-rent apartments-from the rest of Bloomington, portions of which are quite affluent, said Sparks. That dichotomy has made it easy for banks to turn their backs on The Gap, observed Sparks.

The huge need for a trusted financial services partner was clear as soon as the new branch opened, observed Julie Workman, VP of marketing and business development. In less than a month, with no fanfare, the location signed up 20% of all the credit union's new accounts for that period. The $47-million Mid-Illini has one other office in Bloomington's east side.

The church turned over to Mid-Illini a 400-square-foot unused office just inside the church lobby. There is also an outside door for direct access. "It's a small space," said Workman. "We have two teller windows, one cash recycler, an ATM and a small safe. We have two full-time staff and one part-timer."

Workman said that along with the new branch, the community-chartered credit union introduced its new "Catch A Break Cash" payday loan alternative. The product advances up to $1,000 and members have a year to pay back the simple-interest loan that charges between 25%-35%, based on risk. Mid-Illini also plans to make financial literacy a big part of the West Bloomington office. "More than 80% of our entire staff have CUNA's Certified Credit Union Financial Counselor designation."


Town Needs 'Help'

The church moved eight years ago to its current location, building a new facility to meet a fast-growing congregation's needs. The church relocated from another section of West Bloomington into what Sparks termed an even tougher part of town. "Some of the congregation opposed the move, saying they wanted the church to move to the east side. But the pastor said no. He said this is the part of town that needs our help."

Mt. Pisgah plans to expand, and when it does the credit union office will likely grow as well. "The church has a food pantry, a clothing store and hopes to someday start a community center," said Sparks. "It is the gathering place for this community. The church is doing a lot here to raise up West Bloomington and Mid-Illini is proud to be part of that mission.

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