Joint credit union initiative opens as Frenchtown Financial Opportunity Center

Keith Bowers, regional director for FAMU Small Business Development Center and leader of the Economic Development Ministries at Bethel./ Photo by St. Clair Murraine


By St. Clair Murraine 

Outlook Staff  writer

With its grand opening set for July 11, backers of the Frenchtown Financial Opportunity Center (FFOC) are brimming with optimism that the credit union will grow over the long haul.
The presidents of FSU and Envision credit unions, which are partnering on the venture, also said the FFOC will move expeditiously to help families in the Frenchtown area work to rebuild their credit — a big part of what Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor at Bethel Missionary Church, had in mind when he announced plans for a credit union in the area 10 years ago.
“We need to start teaching our children at an early age how to handle money, how to plan and budget,” said Keith Bowers, regional director for FAMU Small Business Development Center and leader of the Economic Development Ministries at Bethel. “A lot of times they don’t get that information until it’s too late and they’re already in debt and have a low credit score.”
The announcement of the opening of the FFOC came on the same day that Holmes introduced the Frenchtown Business Development Council. The group will help Frenchtown businesses know what resources are available to them, Bowers said.
“It gives us an opportunity to network and see if there are ways to get our businesses to go after larger projects or other initiatives to expand and grow,” he said. “We want people to learn from the best practices.”
Frenchtown Financial Opportunity Center, which opened this past Friday, is located on the corner of Tennessee Street and MLK Blvd. Its hours of operation are 9 to 4 Monday through Friday, with free ATM service.
New membership can start with a $5 fee and existing members of either credit union could do any transaction at the Frenchtown location.
FSU and Envision credit unions decided to partner on a shared services concept a little more than a year ago, said Bradley Blake president of FSU. He and Darryl Worrell, president of Envision, said there were plenty of incentives to move forward on the plan, especially with plans for a small business development center, another piece of the concept that Holmes laid the groundwork for.
That plan calls for a mixed-use development with housing, shops and business offices. The project will be built on a parcel of land inside a loop that goes around Tennessee, Macomb and Virginia streets and MLK Blvd.
“Frenchtown is unique,” Worrell said. “It’s a point in the city that is glaring obvious about what it can be.
“We really believe that over the next decade that Frenchtown is going to be one of those areas that can sustain growth. We think it’s going to be a destination point and it’s only smart for a financial institution to have a presence there.”
The small business development project could get off the ground soon after the Leon County/Tallahassee Community Revitalization Agency completes a marketing analysis, said Bowers. The idea is to restore Frenchtown to the vibrant business hub and residential area that it was during the 1960s, Bowers said.
The Frenchtown Financial Development Center is the initial step. Backers are hoping that residents of the area will use their financial services instead of payday lenders and pawn shops that charge exorbitant fees for loans and cashing checks.
“We just think it’s a great opportunity; a great partnership to build this community up and to help get out of the cycle of debt and these predatory practices that people are prone to go to because that’s their only option,” Blake said. “I feel this can be a good anchor for this community as it helps to revitalize this area.”
Bowers said Bethel began to look at the option of having both credit unions open the FFOC soon after the church attempted to take on the venture itself. However, there was a freeze on offering credit union charters because of a financial crisis in 2008.
Now they have something that other credit unions might want to emulate.
“It could be a model for what can be done in this city, this region, state and hopefully in the country,” Worrell said.
The FFOC will offer the same services offered by its parent partners. Educating its new members on how to restore their credit will be a priority, Worrell said.
“We are going to try in this endeavor to equip everyone that comes into the Frenchtown Financial Opportunity Center with the information that they need so they can go put that to work for them,” he said. “That’s something that takes time. We want to help people help themselves.”

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