By Linda Nelson and Tricia Hall
The Truth Reporters
The Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, located at 1441 Dorr Street, offers all of the typical services that many banking institutions do, including checking and savings accounts, loans, CDs and a Visa credit card.
It also offers services that you won’t get at your local bank such as bill payments and credit counseling. But what really distinguishes TUFCU from the rest, is the sheer determination of the people behind it to offer a better financial life to the community they serve even if the methods are unconventional and it involves going the extra mile..
Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union became the first, and remains the only, community development credit union in the city of Toledo, since opening its doors in July 1996. Local community leaders who founded the credit union include: Ken Alderson, Suzette Cowell (the first and only CEO the credit union has known) Rev. Robert Culp, Roosevelt Gant, Minister Rick Hunter, Alto King Jr., Edwin Mabrey and Bishop Duane Tisdale.
“We begin with prayer,” says TUFCU CEO Suzette Cowell. Cowell is quick to point out that in actuality the credit union is the result of many prayers, much hard work and the strong desire of city leaders and business owners to see residents of the community treated with fairness.
“I worked at a bank both as a teller and in the compliance department,” Cowell says. “When loan applications came in they would first look at the zip codes and then they would turn down the application. I prayed that there would be a financial institution that would consider a person by credit worthiness.”
That opportunity came at a meeting that stemmed from a 1992 shooting incident. During that meeting an eight-point community development plan was discussed. The credit union was on that list.
According to Cowell, they canvassed the community to test the climate and the possible receptivity for a credit union, and what they learned was that many people did not have any relationship with a financial institution, didn’t trust banks and many kept their money at home.
After, Cowell forged a partnership with Bishop Duane C. Tisdale, and TUFCU was launched at the nurses’ station of Friendship Baptist Church.
“We were set up at the nurses’ station in Friendship,” says Cowell. “We would open accounts during service.” But soon the membership began to grow and so did the need for a larger space.
Cowell says that in 1996, former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner came to the credit union’s charter signing, saw how large the crowds were and offered the current Dorr Street location.
And in July 1996 TUFCU opened Ohio’s first community credit union in eight years.
The move proved to be a mixed blessing because, although the credit union had room to grow and accept more members, that growth placed a strain on credit union staff.
“We grew too fast,” says Cowell. “We went from about 700 members 1n 1996 to 2100 members that same year.” Cowell remembers how overwhelmed they were with transactions and the sheer volume of memberships. “We had people beating on the doors wanting to start accounts. We had two staff members and we couldn’t take lunch breaks or return phone calls,” she says. “There was one man who came and just stood outside of the door because he was afraid to come in.” That man is now a member of the credit union and his story is only one of many during those early years.
The rapid growth, Cowell says, also contributed to the difficulty she and her staff had in obtaining a charter from the National Credit Union Administration. Getting licensing from NCUA was crucial because it would provide financial security to credit union members.
“Those who held the charter were reluctant,” she says. “We had a meeting with regulation representatives, and 32 pastors in Bishop Tisdale’s office, and those representatives gave us a one-hour talk on the cons about the survival of a credit union in this community.” Cowell says that the regulation committee initially believed that the credit union was too aggressive with lending practices and was taking too much of a risk.
Eventually the credit union did get the charter and Cowell says that she has no regrets. “Our members are some of the most loyal I’ve seen, “she says. “A few years ago during the big financial crisis 99 percent of members who filed bankruptcy have come back to pay us.”
Cowell says that today TUFCU quadrupled its assets and much of that has gone back into the community, mainly through non-predatory lending. Cowell also gives much credit to TUFCU employees, its board of directors, community leaders, pastors and the financial institutions, including Huntington Bank and Fifth Third Bank, who have supported the agency from the beginning. “These people have not only been there from the start, but they believe in this community,” she says.
TUFCU made another move in 2016 and took another leap forward as the plans gelled for a new building on the southwest corner of Dorr and Detroit. For the past six years the credit union has been in its own freestanding 3,200 square foot building which greatly expanded convenience of service for TUFCU members. The financial assistance of Richard LaValley, Jr., Toledo Urban Foundation board president, was pivotal making that dream a reality.
However, what was good for TUFCU and its members six years ago is now not quite enough and Cowell and her staff and board are busy looking at plans for an expansion within the next few years.
Frances Smith has believed in what TUFCU is doing for the community since the beginning. Smith, former board president for many years, including during those first years, also owns her own Toledo-based company, Smith Travel and Tours.
“I started assisting Suzette when she was gathering signatures at Friendship, and became her secretary,” Smith says. “What really impressed me, and how I got sold into the credit union was seeing how people were being helped. There was a young man who had been turned down for an auto loan consistently. He could not get credit. Suzette looked at his credit report and saw that the reason he was being denied was that his mother had done what many mothers in that situation do. She put her utilities in his name. Suzette worked with this young man, contacting the credit bureaus and explaining that he could not have had utilities in his name as a minor. They were finally able to get this young man’s credit straightened out and he was able to get a car loan.”
Edwin Mabrey, another long-time board member puts it this way “The credit union is the hub of what is happening in this city, It is also a hub for financial growth, community involvement and the development of black businesses,” he says. “We are the only community developmental credit union in Ohio, but we are not your typical credit union. We deal with individuals who are having difficulty paying back loans. We sit with them and work out their options. And when someone dies, it’s the family who comes to us for help to bury that person whether they are members of the credit union or not.”
Mabrey has been a part of TUFCU since 1996, and started his own salon, Genesis, that same year. He became involved because he was concerned with the decline of black business development in Toledo.
Smith and Mabrey say that their duties as board members include: deciding what direction the credit union is going, setting interest rates, overseeing memberships and insuring that NCUA policies are followed.
But their mission is clear “Our mission is to turn people around so they can become credit worthy, and to teach people about their credit,” says Smith.