The east side is losing a full-service credit union. Not just any credit union. Gabriels Community Credit Union had been an integral part of this community, offering a banking experience much different from the increasingly impersonal and mechanized exchanges happening elsewhere. Gabriels has merged with MSU Federal Credit Union, which will not shutter the space but rather provide a limited set of financial services and community engagement activities there.
A little background: On Jan. 1, Gabriels, a fixture in this quadrant of Lansing, officially merged with MSUFCU. According to all accounts, this was a merger brought about by the unsustainable position in which Gabriels found itself. Without a merger partner, Gabriels might very well have ceased operations.
While many of us genuinely appreciated MSUFCU stepping up, we were disappointed when MSUFCU announced it will close Gabriels at 1901 E. Michigan Ave. on Feb. 29. It turns out, though, that this is not the case. On Friday, MSUFCU’s president and CEO, April Clobes, disclosed that she expects her board to approve her plan for continued use of the space, albeit not as a full-service branch.
I’ll get to those plans in a moment, but first a grateful acknowledgement of Gabriels’ many community-building contributions over the past 63 years.
Founded in 1957 by Church of the Resurrection parishioners, Gabriels became even more of a neighborhood asset when, in the early 2000s, then CEO Dan Dowsett petitioned state regulators to allow Gabriels to become a “community credit union” open to all tricounty residents. The neighborhood signed up. Unsurprisingly, the primary membership of Gabriels lives in 48912 (the east side), while the second largest group is in 48910.
During his 22 years at the helm ending in 2020, Dowsett developed deep connections to many groups, including previously “unbanked,” low-moderate income residents. He courted many nearby businesses and nonprofits, including Allen Neighborhood Center, on whose board he served for a decade. Dowsett also spent years working with the large Lansing Sudanese population and other new Americans to, as he put it, “build trust in the institution.”
About 2,700 members regularly utilized this accessible, walkable institution in the heart of the east side. Indeed, Gabriels has been part of a “15-minute neighborhood,” offering face-to-face, human-scale interactions valued by many.
Needless to say, some of the diverse constituent groups that made up Gabriels’ loyal members are a little nervous about the fast-moving change, first announced in November and expected to be completed by March 1. However, the promise of a continuing MSUFCU presence at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Horton Street offers some reassurance.
Many were no doubt relieved to learn last Friday, as City Pulse reported, that MSUFCU intends to transform the space to provide limited services to the community. The branch will still close Feb.29 because it will take several months to plan and design space that will include a video teller: a real person, though one with whom you are interacting via a screen, who can do transfers, loan payments, cash deposits, check deposits, cash withdrawals, and account inquiries. Basically, an ATM machine plus a teller as needed.
Clobes noted that additional offerings at the former Gabriels site might include access to financial literacy education and specialized counseling as well as engagement activities, such as events featuring new businesses from the maker and incubator-rich Lansing community. Clobes’ model for this might be the recently announced community engagement space that MSUFCU is creating in the MSU Union. If you have other ideas about the potential use of the space, Clobes has invited you to send them to her.
My personal recommendation to MSUFCU is: Maintain a full-service credit union on the site; you won’t be disappointed. Short of that, open a micro-branch, like the five that Clobes said MSUFCU is opening in Chicago this year with two in-person staffers to provide face-to-face assistance.
MSUFCU is a good fit for the east side, and it will find great potential for good work and growth here. Indeed, there is a significant MSU presence already in 48912. Data generated by MSU since 2018 suggests that outside of East Lansing, the east side is one of the most dense graduate and undergraduate student pockets in the region. Data also suggests a substantial number of MSU faculty and staff live here — people who will appreciate a credit union branch close to home.
The east side is a transformative and vibrant community. There are robust housing and health initiatives, community art projects and youth development programs coming out of the neighborhood’s dynamic nonprofit and civic community. MSUFCU has been a generous donor to some of these organizations; they may see opportunities for deepening these community partnerships, now that they have had the good fortune to acquire an eastside site.
Our economically, ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood has a rich history of community improvement, from its days as a part of the Model Cities Program in the 1970s; to being a pilot for a new concept called community policing in the ‘80s; to tackling social determinants of health via the Eastside Health Summit in the ‘90s; and today through work done by community development agencies and roughly 20 organized neighborhood groups. Half of the occupants of roughly 8,500 eastside homes are homeowners, while the other 50% are renters (who traditionally have become home buyers and mortgage holders). Decades ago and before it was a thing, the east side was a welcoming community to our LGBTQ neighbors, refugees and immigrants from dozens of nations, and to people of many faiths and beliefs.
We know that MSUFCU has much to offer this community, just as we offer fertile ground for a credit union truly invested in community improvement and partnership. I welcome MSUFCU and am looking forward, with cautious optimism, to supporting its efforts in its new digs.
(Joan Nelson is the retired founding executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center. He next column will appear March 7.)
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