Austin and Oak Park coalition continues work after Park National's demise

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By TERRY DEAN

It's been three years since Oak Park's Park National Bank - which did much financial investing in Austin and greater West Side - was taken over by the feds, its assets sold to U.S. Bank. But the grassroots coalition that rallied against its demise is still going strong and still bridging traditional gaps between the West Side and Oak Park.

The Coalition For Community Banking - formerly the Coalition to Save Community Banking - is hosting a foreclosure workshop this Saturday, June 16, at Michele Clark High School. It's one of many activities the network of Oak Park and Austin grassroots organizations has organized since forming in late 2009 in the wake of Park National's takeover.

The group's involved then and now include Bethel New Life, the Westside Heath Authority and South Austin Coalition Community Council.

Those organizations as well as activists and elected officials from Oak Park who came together took U.S. Bank somewhat by surprise, recalled Jackie Leavy, a longtime West Side community activist and member of the coalition.

U.S. Bank took over ownership of Park National, formerly owned by Mike Kelly and located at Austin and Madison, in October 2009. The Coalition formed about a month later. U.S. Bank, which had bought other distressed banks prior to Park National, thought the acquisition of the Oak Park institution was another routine purchase, said Leavy - U.S. Bank would come to know better.

The coalition has worked to "sensitize them to the fact that if you're doing banking in this community, it really is community banking," she said.

Leavy credits U.S. Bank for keeping the dialogue open, though she says there's "always room for improvement" with respect to the bank's community efforts. Once it was clear that Park National was gone and not coming back, the coalition decided to remain intact to continue fighting for the "value of community banking," Leavy said.

The group has focused much of its attention on the foreclosure crisis that's hit Oak Park and Austin, Austin being among the hardest hit neighborhoods in the Chicago. Through a pilot program with U.S. Bank, several of the coalition's nonprofits have been able to acquire and rehab some shuttered properties in Austin and Maywood. Six properties in all have been acquired, with three being overseen by Housing Helpers in Maywood and the others by the Westside Heath Authority.

The ultimate goal, Leavy stressed, is to make these homes available as affordable housing for families. Two of the six homes have already been sold with one other under a rent-to-buy contract. The coalition hopes its Community Restoration Fund will grow to include more properties and community organizations, Leavy said.

The coalition's other efforts include establishing a "community benefits agreement" with U.S. Bank to offer improved community banking services to residents, as well as reinvestments on the West Side and near west suburbs.

The group doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

"It just made good common sense for us to continue working together," Leavy said.

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