In January, Wintrust Bank made its debut on the West Side when it opened a branch at 2 N. Western Ave. in East Garfield Park. Now, the branch is trying to forge a community identity. 
In an interview last week, Branch manager Anthony Scott said that his employer understands that in order to serve Chicago, it needs to serve the entire city—including the neighborhoods that major bank chains tend to shy away from. Scott said that Wintrust wants to be part to the fabric of the West Side—hiring locally and tailoring financial products to address the needs of local residents, businesses and organizations. 
Wintrust Bank is based in Chicago’s Loop, with most of its roughly 20 branches located on the North and Northwest Sides. The bank is one of nine Illinois-chartered banks that are subsidiaries of the larger Wintrust Financial Corporation, which is headquartered in Rosemont. The closest Wintrust branch to Austin is located in Montclare, at 3050 N. Harlem Ave. 
Scott said that his bank wants to serve residents and business throughout the West Side. So far, many clients come from East and West Garfield Parks, North Lawndale, Little Village and Austin, as well as neighborhoods further north, such as Ukrainian Village. He estimates that about 70 percent of the branch’s current clients are African American. 
Scott added that many of his branch’s offerings are specifically designed with the needs of West Side residents in mind. 
“We offer basic checking, saving, certificates of deposit,” he said. “We offer mortgages, home equity lines, investment accounts, full-fledged investment services and business banking. Our Total Access Checking program has lower minimum balances than typical, with only $100 required to open an account. There are no minimum balances and, as long as you don’t overdraw, no fees.”
Scott also said that Wintrust Wintrust “has taken a stand against debit card fees, adding that if clients use their cards at other banks’ ATMs, Wintrust will refund whatever fees they’re charged. 
But tailoring financial products to the residents of communities where bank branches are located is easier said than done, Scott explained.
“There’s been a lot of conversation around creating products that are conducive to communities in which we’re located,” he said. “[The issue is that] underwriting guidelines—all of that stuff is governed by the [federal] government. You can’t have specific programs for these people and [different] programs for those people. So the challenge is how to create programs for everybody when everybody doesn’t fit. Witntrust is challenged in this area, just like everybody else. So we’re looking at what we can do to address the problem.”
In the meantime, Scott said, Wintrust is doing what it can to help residents buy homes.
“We had a first-time homebuyer seminar for the community,” he said. “We had 25 people attending. And, as a result, we are able to counsel and give people information, empowering them.”
That included what steps they needed to take to buy a home and how to address potential credit issues.
And Wintrust’s outreach to the community extends beyond that. Scott said that they do regular classes every third Saturday of the month, and Wintrust is currently looking to team up with the North Lawndale Employment Network to hold more. 
“[For Wintrust], the concept of empowering the community comes with our financial literacy piece,” he said. “There’s a lack of knowledge when it comes to banking in the African-American community. And Wintrust is doing its best to help educate people through financial literacy.”
Jennifer Johnson, a banker at the branch, lauded the bank’s other outreach programs, such as an Aug. 26 back-to-school event hosted by Ald. Walter Burnett (27th). The bank plans to team up with the alderman to hand out school supplies. Earlier this year, she said, bank employees opened over 100 student accounts. 
In addition, she noted, the bank is currently in the process of joining the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce. And earlier this year, bank employees participated in an annual banquet hosted by Austin Coming Together. 
Scott said that another West Side branch may be in the works. 
“We’re currently looking for the right place for additional locations on the West Side,” he explained. “We’ve looked at Austin and the surrounding neighborhoods. We want to be Chicago’s bank and in order to be that, we understand that we need to be in all neighborhoods in the city.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...