Residents of Croghan, NY, were losing their only local place to bank when KeyBank announced it was closing the only full-service branch located in the rural community.
Northern Credit Union filled the gap with a temporary location and quick plan to renovate a two-century-old general store.
KeyBank made waves in March 2019 when the regional bank announced it was closing its branch in rural Croghan, NY, a community of more than 3,000 that boasted only one full-service brick-and-mortar banking branch.
“There was public discontent,” says Nathan Hunter, the CFO of Northern Credit Union ($358.0M, Watertown, NY), a cooperative headquartered 30 miles west of Croghan. “There are quite a few businesses that didn’t know where they were going to do their banking.”
CU QUICK FACTS
Northern Credit Union
HQ: Watertown, NY
Data as of 06.30.20
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 32.0%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 22.5%
At the time, Northern had 1,200 members in Croghan. Paired with the upcoming gap in full-service banking, led the credit union to explore establishing a relationship center in the community. To ascertain viability and interest, the credit union surveyed the community by asking, “Would you move your banking relationship to us if we established a relationship center in Croghan?”
According to Hunter, 63% of respondents answered yes; another 16% said they were undecided. With this data, Northern had the confidence to open a relationship center; however, it needed to open one fast.
“Since Croghan is a rural area and KeyBank's close date was quickly approaching, we couldn’t wait months to open a relationship center,” Hunter says. “We needed to find a way to serve the community immediately.”
Building Interest, Surveying For Location
In April, CEO Dan St. Hilaire, Hunter, and Dorothy Wolff, facilities manager, drove to Croghan to scope out real estate. Northern didn’t know if it needed to construct a new building, purchase a modular building, or whether it could find a location suited to its needs. During this trip, the leaders found a retail building that was formerly home to the iconic E.M. Marilley & Co. General Store. The building had been vacant for some time, but it had a storefront on the main street, an open floor plan suited for the credit union’s needs, and the owner was willing to lease.
The space wasn’t move-in ready; however, before the credit union drew up plans to update the Marilley Building, it set up a temporary office within Croghan’s local fire hall. From there, Northern began offering banking services for the community, took to the town with a "street team" approach to develop relationships, while distributing refreshments and branded items, answering questions about the credit union, and opening new accounts. According to Hunter, Northern opened more than 100 personal accounts and 15 business accounts and originated $1.6 million in loans for new and existing members from the temporary location.
To draw interest from new and existing members, Northern also ran a community-focused incentive campaign from April to July 2019. The campaign offered a bonus of up to $250 for opening a Business Premium Choice or Choice Rewards account and a 12-month CD at a 2.75% APY. With each new account opened, Northern made a $50 donation to one of three local community-minded organizations, for whom it ultimately raised $16,400. The credit union also offered a refer-a-friend promotion during that time.
But that’s not the only way Northern made a splash in the community.
The credit union ran multiple pay-it-forward events, surprising the close-knit community by purchasing gas for 150 people at a local gas station, hosting a free pancake breakfast at the locally famous American Maple Museum in Croghan, creating marketing, and donating a bench for the local community garden, among other activities.
All the while, Northern continued work on the Marilley Building with the goal to open as soon as possible.
“Every day KeyBank was closed and we weren’t open was an inconvenience to the community.”
The 6-Week Relationship Center Transformation
The Marilley Building was built in 1874 as a variety store and in the years after had become an important landmark in the center of Croghan. For Northern, which likes to tie its relationship center locations back into its communities, the history was something worth saving.
“We were thrilled with the opportunity to bring new life back into an old, historical building that had been sitting vacant,” says Wolff, Northern’s facilities manager. “Keeping the building special and preserving historical elements shows our members we know how important it is to be a part of their community.”
The credit union was eager to trade in its temporary relationship center for a full-time location; however, it had a lot of work to complete on the nearly 150-year-old building.
“Every day KeyBank was closed and we weren’t open was an inconvenience to the community,” CFO Hunter says. “And although there are always challenges inherent with construction projects, we don’t see them as limitations. We see them as opportunities.”
Opportunities or not, opening the revamped location as soon as possible meant multiple local contractors often worked simultaneously.
For example, the addition of heavy items like a safe, a cash recycler, and seating area meant the credit union needed to add structural support to ensure the building could carry the load. It also upgraded the building’s electrical system, which was still wired to the knob-and-tube style popular before World War II — not modern enough to maintain the credit union’s technology needs.
Northern added WiFi, electronic door locks, security cameras, a bathroom, and an employee break room. It also added air conditioning and upgraded the HVAC system. All of this, plus the credit union had to reimagine the main space in the support of a relationship center.
“The space was basically one large open room with a sales counter,” Wolff says. “It needed offices, technology, and all the upgrades that make it a working relationship center, but we didn’t want to lose what made the space a community landmark.”
For the exterior, Northern wanted to return the building’s curb appeal back to its natural look. It sandblasted the building’s stone façade to match its original appearance, maintained the large glass windows that brought in a large amount of sunlight, and replaced the entry roof with cedar shingles to match the building’s original look in 1874. To make the building compliant with today’s building standards, Northern added a handicap ramp for accessibility.
For the interior, the credit union refinished the space’s age-cracked walls and well-kept hardwood floors. The credit union also had furniture custom-made from a local woodworker and matched the furniture, frames, and column wraps to the floor’s wood tone.
“Croghan is known for its history with logging and its woodworkers,” Hunter says. “Having local woodworking talent work on the space made it even more special. They have a tremendous amount of pride in their work and what they were doing for their community.
The Benefit Of Keeping It Local
Northern would not have completed its relationship center transformation in six weeks if it wasn’t for the familiar, local contractors it used in the design and execution process. Northern’s facilities manager Dorothy Wolff advises other credit unions to think local when turning around a project quickly.
“Local people tend to favor their local projects,” he says. “They don’t have to travel, and they take pride when they see a project like this because of the impact it can have. When you go to out-of-state contractors or builders, it’s not as fast. You can still be waiting on prices in six weeks.”
The open space flowed invitingly into a big period staircase in the back. The credit union didn’t want to take away from that feel when it added offices, and it didn’t want to ruin the old tin ceiling it had refinished and repaired. So, Northern ordered modular glass offices that reach just below the ceiling.
“We didn’t want to erect sheetrock walls, creating a choppy look and take away from the open feel,” Wolff says.
Finally, Northern moved inside the original E.M Marilley & Co. sign that hung on the exterior of the building and refurbished the sales counter, covering it in glass. That now sits in the waiting area as a focal point for incoming members.
“It’s cool to see the heartwarming, nostaligic reaction from members when they see it there,” Wolff says.
Northern's Croghan Branch
Northern's refurbished Croghan, NY branch matches the original look of the building, built in 1874.
Northern matched the period look inside the branch, as well. The credit union repaired the tin ceilings and installed modular glass offices that reach just below the ceiling.
In its designs, the credit union paid special attention to matching wood tones — across the floorboards, column wraps, and window frames.
The branch waiting area includes locally made furniture (in matching wood tones) and the original refurbished E.M. Marilley & Co. General Store sign.
The grand, period staircase is one of the focal points of the branch.
The ITM Next Door
Northern's plans for its Croghan location always included a drive-thru. It took several additional months from the branch opening and required razing the adjacent lot, but the drive-thru ITM machine is now fully functional and came in handy during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Reaction And The Future
The credit union wanted to finish its work as soon as possible. It turned out as soon as possible was six weeks.
The space opened in May 21, 2019, and, according to Hunter, the new relationship center had opened 432 new accounts by July.
“We’d been in the community for months already,” Hunter says. “But some were waiting to open accounts with us until we opened the doors to the new relationship center.”
The new relationship center didn’t stop growing once it opened its doors, however.
Northern opened the Croghan location without a drive-thru. One was in the long-term plans; however, the plot of land didn’t have an easily accessible location for a drive-thru. So, Northern bought the adjacent plot that held a house, which the credit union razed to add a drive-thru interactive teller machine. It then added a cedar split-rail fence and landscaping to offer privacy to the houses it now borders. This project took the credit union nearly nine months to plan and execute.
The drive-thru was a fortuitous benefit brought forth by COVID-19. Northern, which provides cutting-edge technology options for a credit union its size, encouraged its members to use its digital channels in the wake of the pandemic — which they have, by and large. But in Croghan, a drive-thru was wholly new.
“Residents didn’t have a drive-thru at KeyBank,” Wolff says. “We’re happy to see they’re enjoying the convenience of banking from their cars.”
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