The West Side-based Leaders Network has signed a memorandum of understanding with Great Lakes Credit Union to open a branch in Austin.

“This is something that ultimately could change the landscape in America because Black people would be able to get loans in their own community without paying so much money or just outright getting denied,” said Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin.

Michelle Collins, a former community development banker with Austin and Oak Park roots, has been assisting in the effort. She said, Great Lakes Credit Union is a “great partner” that aligns with the mission and vision of the Leaders Network. Earlier this year, Collins had said the faith leaders group was in conversations with larger credit unions interested in working with the group.

The two groups have signed a memorandum of understanding – the first step – to enter a partnership that will allow the Leaders Network to open a credit union branch on the West Side after raising funds for about a year.

“The real great benefit is that without a partner like Great Lakes we would have to start from scratch,” Collins said. “With this partnership, we could immediately start operating when we consummate the partnership.”

Acree said one possible location for a branch is in the Soul City Corridor, potentially at the Sankofa Cultural and Business Center that’s operated by businessman Malcolm Crawford.

“It’s not a done deal, but that’s what I’d like,” he said, adding the Leaders Network met with Crawford, who leads the Austin African American Business Networking Association, who along with his team gave a “terrific presentation” about the potential location.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a nice Christmas present … to have a branch in the community in Sankofa,” Acree said.

David Cherry, president of the Leaders Network, points out that roughly 80% of residents of the West Side are “un-banked or under-banked. He adds, “There’s a great deal of mistrust in financial institutions.”

As a result, many West Side residents rely on currency exchanges for everyday financial needs, but that comes at a high cost with high interest rates and fees. The Leaders Network envisions a credit union focused on the West Side will allow residents to get auto loans and housing loans at more reasonable rates. Locals will more readily be able to start or expand their businesses.

Cherry notes of this initiative, “This fits into the overall work we do in supporting the community.

Collins said the Leaders Network’s goal is to reach a definitive agreement by the end of this year, allowing the credit union to start virtual operations, offering West Side residents and business owners financial services and financial literacy. The brick-and-mortar branch could take longer to open, she said.

“If we have the staffing, we could start opening accounts and online banking,” Collins said.

Acree said the Leaders Network is still seeking donations, which will help fund the associated costs of opening the credit union, such as licenses, fees, marketing and outreach. So far, $300,000 has been raised.

“I can’t wait for this to manifest, this is definitely one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of,” Acree said. “We’re so close, and I’m so very hopeful about because I think this could possibly be a national model. If it happens in Chicago, why can’t it happen in Detroit, St. Louis and other cities?”

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