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Nearly Year After Occupy, Community Banks, Credit Unions Report Steady Growth

Last fall, thousands of Sonoma County residents switched their bank accounts to local lending institutions in a wave of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. But even as the "occupations" have ceased, interest in banking locally has not.

The Occupy movement is not generating a lot of headlines these days, but local credit unions say resentment toward commercial bank practices central to the group’s ideology has resulted in unprecedented growth in new accounts and borrowers.

The momentum began in October, as Occupy groups formed around the country, including in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. It reached zenith on National Bank Transfer Day, on Nov. 5, a separate movement started by a 27-year-old Los Angeles art gallery owner, urging consumers to withdraw money from big banks.

But even as the park “occupations” have disappeared, customers have continued to flock to locally-owned banks and credit unions.

“What’s remarkable is that every single month for us has been as good as last October,” said David Williams, a spokesman for Santa Rosa-based Community First Credit Union.

“Through the Occupy movement, people really started to question what their banks do with their money and our clients have continued to just build and build. It’s as if a critical mass was reached and the momentum has not diminished.”

Community First saw a 28 percent surge in new checking accounts last year and this year is on pace to grow about 22 percent, Williams said. Their lending has also nearly doubled since last year to $29.5 million in first five months of this year.

That’s a big deal because the average rate of growth nationwide for a credit union is under 2 percent per year, according to Anne Benjamin, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Redwood Credit Union, North Bay’s largest credit union with 18 branches.

Since last summer, Redwood has picked up more than 26,000 new members, an increase of about 12 percent from the previous year.

“About 40 percent of our new members are from big banks,” Benjamin said. “People are not only moving their accounts to us, but also their home and car loans and applying for credit cards."

Both lending organizations have invested heavily in technology.

In June, Redwood Credit Union revamped its website and will soon be upgrading their customers' “online user experience” and adding mobile banking. Next year, the lending organization plans to roll out new features such as allowing customers to open an account without going into a branch and applying for a loan online.

which already has mobile apps that allow members to check their accounts and transfer money between internal and external accounts, is working on a feature that will allow customers to deposit checks by taking a photo of them with their smart phones.

“Being able to match big banks on the online conveniences is huge,” Williams said.

But more than offering ease of service and accesibility, the continued growth in new accounts shows that the local banks' message of the importance of community-centric banking is finally getting through.

"People are starting to apply the idea of "local" to their financial institutions," Williams said. "As the state and federal government continue with their budget problems, more people are realizing the benefits of keeping their money locally and having it be reinvested in the local economy." 

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