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Chase has opened a new branch in one of Philly’s most underbanked neighborhoods

by Noah Zucker - Philly Inquirer

Beyond traditional banking, the new branch in Cobbs Creek is offering classes on home ownership, personal investing and running a small business.

A new place for people to deposit checks, apply for loans, and learn about personal finance just opened in one of Philadelphia’s most underbanked neighborhoods.

The new Chase branch on the corner of South 52nd and Ludlow Streets is currently the only bank in Cobbs Creek.

This location is more than just a branch, though. It’s also a community center outfitted with free WiFi, a seating area that anyone can use (even without a Chase account), and a multipurpose room where local businesses and organizations can hold pop-up events and seminars free of charge.

Chandra Williams, a Chase community manager based out of the new location, is most excited about the educational resources the branch will provide the West Philadelphia community. Those include classes on home ownership, personal investing and running a small business. They’re open to anyone, Williams said.

The first, a program for women who were previously incarcerated, will happen Jan. 7, she said. Then there will be a mixer for Realtors and community members on Jan. 14.

In addition, qualifying small businesses — those with a track record of at least two years and $100,000 in revenue — are eligible for free one-on-one mentorship, which can lead to connections with lawyers, accountants, and social media managers, Williams said. These are key resources that help small businesses attract new customers and manage the additional bookkeeping that comes with them.

“I think that financial literacy is important for this neighborhood,” said West Philly resident and Chase customer Thelma Moore. “It’s up and coming.”

The Cobbs Creek location one of 15 similar community branches Chase operates around the country, said Racquel Oden, the company’s managing director. The bank will open only one in a given metro area.

We need to be doing our part to create generational wealth,” Williams said of Chase’s $30 billion racial equity commitment underpinning the new branch.

That’s exactly what many residents of Cobbs Creek and other underbanked neighborhoods in Philadelphia lack, said Timothy Roundtree, vice president of the Enterprise Center, a community development organization working to revitalize the 52nd Street commercial corridor.

He said the in-person location and educational resources would go a long way in building trust between the community and financial institutions, given that there’s a long history of banks in Philly discriminating against people of color.

“Folks in the community are seeing that financial institutions are willing to dedicate time to hear from them. I think that’s the first step,” Roundtree said. “Like any type of relationship, it has to be developed over time.”

Williams said the 52nd and Ludlow spot is a good location for a bank, given that about 400 small businesses operate in a two-mile radius. But at present, even though West

Philadelphia is populated about 70% by people of color, that demographic owns around a quarter of the businesses on 52nd between Arch and Pine Streets, Roundtree said.

Williams and Roundtree say they hope that the new opportunity that residents have to take out loans for homes and businesses without leaving their neighborhood will change that.

The changing role of banks

This part of West Philadelphia was once a top priority for one of the city’s most iconic banks.

Chase’s new Cobbs Creek branch, which opened quietly in November, took over a structure that was built for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) in the 1920s. At the time, 52nd Street anchored a whiter, more affluent community.

PSFS was the nation’s first savings bank when it was created in 1816, said Patrick Grossi, the executive director of the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance. The organization got the 52nd Street structure listed as a historic landmark by the city in 2011.

Many of the original details have been preserved, including the old vault and two of the original light fixtures.

The building used to be occupied by a Citizens Bank branch, which ultimately relocated to the Dunlap section of West Philadelphia on the other side of 52nd and Market in 2019.

For a time, Citizens was the only bank in the city serving the thousands of people living west of 52nd Street. Citizens has 41 branches in Philadelphia, more than any other bank, said Dan Fitzpatrick, the company’s Mid-Atlantic regional president. That includes 15 in low- to moderate-income communities.

But those branches are generally less profitable than ones in wealthier, suburban locales, according to Fitzpatrick. They simply get fewer deposits.

Citizens’ move across Market was fueled by the changing purpose of physical branch

locations in the age of digital banking.

With the Friday afternoon rush to cash checks now a thing of the past, Fitzpatrick said, there’s no longer a need for several teller booths or the space they take up, which can be expensive to heat and cool. The current Citizens branch on 52nd is in a smaller, newly constructed building, which puts more of an emphasis on the bankers and their offices.

That configuration is also true of the new Chase branch, which has only two teller windows.

In the internet era, the real purpose of an in-person branch is to build relationships and trust with customers, the banks said. This remains a priority for many patrons following the pandemic, which saw a lot of companies go completely digital.

That personal connection is especially important in communities of color, where a long history of discrimination on the part of some banks has left many residents wary, Roundtree said.

“They still want face to face,” said William “Smokey” Glover, the director of fair and responsible banking at Fulton Bank, another company expanding its presence in the city’s underserved communities — particularly North Philly.

In 2020, Fulton opened the first bank to operate in Brewerytown in more than 30 years. The first West Philly location, on the corner of 42nd and Market Streets, is planned for the first half of 2023.

Chase has opened 52 branches in metro Philly since 2018, when it got permission to operate in Pennsylvania from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Oden said. Of those, 30% are located in low- to moderate-income communities. Chase plans to expand to 85 branches across the region by 2024.

Moore said she decided to open a Chase account last year due to the convenience of the bank’s big footprint and its network of branches. “There’s so many of them,” she said.

Although the new West Philly branch is open for business, executives are considering it a soft launch. Chase hopes to have an official grand opening event in February to introduce itself to the community.

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