The plot of land at the intersection of East 8th Avenue and Ferry Street in downtown Eugene, OR, is the future home of Northwest Community Credit Union’s support center. The four-story building will replace the credit union’s current headquarters located in a converted furniture store in nearby Springfield.
The site, which was formerly home to the Agripac Cannery food processing company, served as an outdoor classroom from 2010 to 2013 for students of the University of Oregon. For three years students tended to a community garden and donated the fruits and vegetables of their labor to local charities and social service agencies. Although the program ended in early 2013, the spirit of investing in the land and returning its profits to the community remains.
Downtown Eugene is in the early stages of a renaissance, and Northwest Community’s investment in East 8th Avenue has become a legitimizing factor in that process. As of Spring 2013, Lane Community College plans to move parts of its campus to the new downtown, and an area that has long been a source of complaint is now sparking excitement within the community.
Here, John Iglesias, CEO of Northwest Community, discusses why the nearly $800 million credit union is moving its support center, how it helps the community, and why it is essential to the mission of the credit union.
What is happening in downtown Eugene?
John Iglesias: In recent years the city has been challenged with businesses moving out of the downtown core. Now that we’re coming out of the Great Recession, the city is interested in revitalizing that area. It has a great vision it calls “The Return to The River.” That vision resonates with our vision for growth, and we want to be a part of the excitement surrounding the plan to grow the downtown corridor. Our involvement has given the project some energy and momentum.
Where did the idea come from to move into this area?
JI: When I first came on board almost two years ago, I identified workflow as a point of pain. We’ve grown steadily throughout the years, but we haven’t put a lot of thought into our back office and workflow. One of the things I wanted to do was fix that point of pain for my staff.
We went through the due diligence to identify possible solutions. We kept bouncing it off the board and talking about the concerns we had with space and with planning. We came to the conclusion fairly quickly that we needed to renovate the back office and our headquarters. When we saw the price tag for that, one of the members said, “If we’re going to pay that much for a renovation, we might as well think about building a new headquarters.”
We started to rethink the fundamentals of our business. We thought it was important that the message be clear that we’re here to support our members and our staff who serve our members on the front line. That’s why we changed the name of the building from “headquarters” to “support center.” We’re not detached from what staff does on a daily basis; we’re here to support.
How will the new support center better facilitate workflow?
JI: It’s going to put people that should work together in closer proximity. Since we converted our core system in 2007 we haven’t looked at our processes fundamentally to determine what changes we need to make. We just rolled out our electronic services platform — all of the mobile banking, new bill pay, new online banking, and, soon, remote deposit capture. Taking all that into consideration, we felt being able to design our support center from the ground up is a unique opportunity, especially given this phase of growth we’ve been experiencing — last year we had more than 16% growth in our loans outstanding and our organization is seeing similar growth this year.
What do you hope to accomplish by moving to downtown Eugene?
JI: Eighth Street is one of what the city calls the four Great Streets of downtown; it’s the nerve center of downtown. The city wants residents to want to come downtown, walk around, and experience the area. Because one of the Great Streets is going to run right in front of our building, we want to create a retail environment, more than just a corporate office that houses a lot back-office people that don’t have any connection to their neighbors or the downtown area. We want to be a part of that activity.
On the bottom floor of the planned four-story building is one or two retail spaces. We’re going to transfer our community room to the new location and create a community center for the benefit and use of the businesses and nonprofits in the downtown core, offer it to them as a service continuing with the tradition of our commitment to our community and our neighborhoods.
Talk to me about the community room.
JI: We’ve always been committed to small businesses. We have a small business banking group and a member business lending area that provides several services to member business owners. We host seminars in our community room at our current location, and we plan to continue that tradition. We want to open the room to community nonprofits as well as community initiatives. It would be perfectly suited for supporting large groups of people and meetings.
What does the credit union’s relationship with the community mean to you?
We see ourselves as an integral part of the community and not just a participant. We’re committed to providing support to major city projects and initiatives. We have our Project Community Day where 200-plus Northwest Community employees descend upon the town for volunteer work; it’s rolling up your sleeves, picking up a shovel, and taking care of your community.
We believe “local” is critical to credit unions. We only do business in areas we understand. The business we’ve done in the small business arena is only in places we know and understand, within driving distance and in communities we’ve invested in.
What advice would you give to credit unions interested in moving their headquarters into up-and-coming area?
JI: One of the things I love about the credit union community is people will share their thoughts and the process they went through. My most useful advice is: Think long term and don’t worry so much about the budget today.
Don’t just look at the opportunities of today; think about making opportunities for your future. That takes careful thought and dedicated involvement from your directors. We would never have gotten to this point if it were not for the support we’ve had from the volunteers on our board of directors. Every step of the way their advice has been critical.