Now a year old, the credit union has grown rapidly, backers say

Patte Wagner, branch manager, listens to an Islander at Friday’s party. Behind her, Bill Moyer is engaged in conversation.  - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Patte Wagner, branch manager, listens to an Islander at Friday’s party. Behind her, Bill Moyer is engaged in conversation.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

A year ago, the CEO of the Bellevue-based Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union recalled, Island organizers told him a branch on Vashon would draw considerable support.

Kevin Ellisen and his team put together several one-year-later scenarios before opening the Vashon  branch, he said — with a low of $3 million in deposits, a high of $19 million and a “realistic expectation” of $4 million to $5 million.

Friday night, at a one-year anniversary party at the small branch next to Frame of Mind, Ellisen looked around the jam-packed room and shook his head.

“We were told the branch would be well-received. But we had no idea,” he said.

In one year, Vashon’s nonprofit credit union has garnered 1,700 members and $17 million in deposits. In terms of membership, the Vashon branch already makes up nearly a quarter of the company’s members, which boasts a total of 7,600 members at its four branches in the region.

The response, said Shannon Ellis-Brock, a vice-president of the Bellevue-based credit union, “has far exceeded our expectations.”

Patte Wagner, the branch manager, agreed. At Friday night’s event, where she was dressed in colorful clothes and sported a small dot, or bindi, on her forehead in celebration of the ethnic music pulsating in the background, she smiled widely.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” she said.

Those involved with the effort say the credit union came along at a perfect time on Vashon, when anger over the lending practices, fees and executive salaries at the nation’s biggest banks was bubbling up across the country. But Rob Harmon, who with Island activist Bill Moyer launched the idea of a Vashon-based credit union, said he thinks it’s not just anger that’s fueling the current level of support.

“The credit union is not a neutral place to put your money,” he said. “It’s a positive place to put your money. … We’re returning this money to this community.”

Indeed, at Friday night’s celebration, Ann Leda Shapiro, an Island artist and acupuncturist, displayed her own colorful painting of the little house she recently purchased in Ellisport — with a mortgage from the credit union.

“I’ve never owned a home before,” she said, sounding almost giddy.

But Vashon’s branch still has some growth to do to secure a firm spot for itself on the Island, several of its supporters said. It’s not enough, they noted, for the branch to have a lot of deposits. The way it earns enough money to be profitable is from loaning those funds to members in the form of mortgages, car loans, energy efficiency loans and credit cards.

So far, the credit union has loaned about $7.5 million of that $17 million in deposits to Islanders, most of it in mortgages and some in energy-efficiency loans, Wagner said.

“That’s lower than we’d like to see,” Ellis-Brock said. “It’s starting to improve. It’s coming slowly and surely.”

The credit union is not sitting on those non-loaned funds members have deposited, Ellisen said. Some of the funds have been loaned to members in other branches. Some is invested in safe, low-interest investments — such as certificates of deposit, which currently bring in about .5 percent in interest.

But to really see the impact a credit union can have on a small community, “people need to move their debt,” Harmon said.

“That’s where we really get to the place where people lending money to each other is useful to the community, where we’re not pulling money out of the community and sending it away,” Harmon said.

The credit union is working these days on letting people know that it offers credit cards, car loans and home equity loans at what Harmon says are extremely good rates. In fact, Harmon, who was the first one on the Island to open up an account at the branch and is an unabashed champion of the credit union, sends out periodic emails to a long list of Islanders letting them know about the credit union’s various financial products.

“It’s pretty easy to move your deposits,” he said. “We knew it would take time for the lending to catch up.

Ellisen agreed. “We’re not worried. We understood it would take some time.”


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