Headquartered in Oak Park, Park Bank (formerly First Bank of Oak Park) is participating with two faith-based organizations and the federal government in an experiment at the corner of Lake and Pulaski that seeks to combine good business sense, street smarts and a vision for community development. The experiment is called the Community Savings Center (CSC). Here is part two of the story:

Where did the funding and the willingness to take risks come from to make such an experiment happen? Four players were involved:

1) Bethel New Life is a faith-based service agency on the West Side of Chicago which was started by Bethel Lutheran Church in 1979 and now pays the salaries of 348 employees, has a $13.5 million budget and serves more than 12,000 families. Bethel New Life used some federal grant money to begin a small pilot program with Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) for 25 of its employees in 1999.

2) Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is a non-profit “fraternal” benefit society which has 3 million members, all of whom are Lutheran. Because it is fraternal, all profits go back to the communities in which the members live and worship in the form of grants to churches and institutions whose purposes are consistent with that of the Lutheran Church. In 2005 Thrivent came to Bethel and proposed building on their pilot project to do something far more substantial for the whole community.

Realizing that not-for-profit banks could provide IDAs, Thrivent gave the as-yet-unborn Community Savings Center the promise of a $1 million grant, plus a team of motivated volunteers. Neil Steinberg, a columnist for the Sun-Times wrote, “Thrivent helps people of all denominations, having spread more than $1 billion worth of good around over the past decade. Kinda cool, really.”

3) The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services matched Thrivent’s grant with a $1 million grant of their own. According to a Thrivent news release, this total of $2 million in funding for the Savings Center-if fully utilized-could result in the purchase of 200 new homes, post-secondary education for 120 people and investments in 60 small businesses.

4) The center had vision and funding but still needed the business know-how to run a bank. First Bank of Oak Park Corporation (now called Park National Bank), which already had a track record of working with Bethel New Life in particular and the community in general, provided the last player the team needed.

The Oak Park bank’s location at the corner of North and Austin reflects the collaboration of suburban capital and business expertise with Bethel New Life’s commitment to the West Side. Park Bank provides the assets of a $13 billion multi-bank holding company and the know-how to run a bank.

Catherine Hegarty, another Thrivent employee who participated in the center’s creation, was clearly impressed with Park Bank. “In the short run, the bank isn’t going to make a lot of money doing this. They have to be committed to the community. In the long run, hopefully, they will [make money].” She hoped Park Bank would eventually begin to show a profit on the bottom line as customers like Ann Myles and Calvin Hoarde mature in their money management skills and begin to need the services that Park Bank provides.

A Thrivent news release says of Park Bank, “The firm is built on a community banking philosophy that allows local autonomy in business development and customer relationships.” In that same press release Park Bank’s president, Thomas Bolger, was quoted as saying, “We are offering center clients accessible and affordable financial products that provide an important alternative to payday lenders and check cashers. We see our involvement as an investment in the community, as we are helping to put our clients on the road to successful engagement with mainstream financial products and services.”

From corporate to community

Kacy Bassett left the Chase Corporation and a significantly larger salary to become the director of the Community Savings Center. Bassett reported that since opening, the center has drawn customers mainly from the Austin, Garfield, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale neighborhoods but also from as far away as South 110th Street. To promote the center, he is doing a lot of networking with nearby organizations like Circle Urban Ministries.

Patrice Robinson put out the call for volunteers. What the center needs right now are coaches for the IDA holders, business people who are willing to be shadowed, and small business coaches. She can be contacted at 773/826-8121 or probinson

Mayor Richard Daley, who, along with Congressman Danny Davis (7th District) and other officials, attended the center’s grand opening on May 30, agreed with Robinson. Daley said, “The Community Savings Center, like so many successful projects in Chicago, is the result of a partnership involving the not-for-profit sector, the faith community and the private sector. I commend Bethel New Life, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Park National Bank. With your help, Chicago families are freeing up money to pay for college, buy a home, start a business or take other steps along the path toward the American dream. That’s good for them, and it’s good for the long-term future of our city.”

Hands across the boulevard indeed.