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Credit unions bank on opportunity during pandemic

The new First Financial Credit Union headquarters building near Renaissance and Union Way NE. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the face of unprecedented financial circumstances, New Mexico credit unions have found ways to expand and capitalize on the state’s need for financial support, local industry leaders said.

Despite the hurdles of helping members navigate rent assistance or secure emergency funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, New Mexico Credit Union Association President Paul Stull said there has been substantial growth and activity for credit unions.

Paul Stull

“It’s been a crazy year, but it’s been a year that plans have been able to go forward, because new locations have opened up,” Stull said. “It’s also an opportunity to put new resources into play … and it certainly is an opportunity to kind of meet the needs of a growing demand across the state.”

Stull said the permanent closure of some national bank branches have allowed smaller credit unions an unanticipated opportunity to expand.

“There have been opportunities this year that were not available in the past,” he said. “… Some banks have shuttered their offices and that’s freed up some space for credit unions to purchase and assume bank branches.”

Stull said credit unions also are using this year to increase financial services like financial counseling in preparation for future needs and their now-larger membership base.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I mean obviously it’s needed now, but people are going to need a lot of help navigating their finances,” he said.

Sandia Laboratory Federal

Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union is one of the many local credit unions that has been able to capitalize on the pandemic through expansion and mergers.

Robert Chavez

Robert Chavez, Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union CEO, said the credit union recently signed a deal to move into the former Wells Fargo branch at 7412 Jefferson NE.

The 55,000-square-foot location should be open by mid-year.

Chavez said while most branches have financial counselors, this location will differ by having many services all at one centrally located branch.

“We’re kind of designing it around what we refer to as a ‘member mall’ concept where it’s kind of a one-stop-shop where a member can go,” he said.

Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union will also be opening up a smaller 3,500-square-foot branch on Rio Grande north of Interstate 40 by this fall.

The credit union will also be picking up several Farmington branches thanks to an expected merger with Animas Credit Union.

While the merger has yet to be finalized, Chavez expects the deal to be completed next year.

“We certainly have the breadth and depth to be able to support the Farmington community with business lending efforts,” he said.

First Financial

First Financial Credit Union too is entering 2021 with a focus on branch expansion and bringing enhanced financial services to its members.

First Financial Credit Union President Ron Moorehead Dec. 30 in the lobby of the institution’s new headquarters in Albuquerque.

The credit union will begin the year with opening of its new headquarters location off Renaissance and Union Way, and company president Ron Moorehead said he is looking at bringing banking services to underserved portions of the state.

“One of the reasons we’re doing this new corporate office is, aside from busting at the seams at the existing corporate headquarters, we wanted to put together a kind of new area where we could test out new technologies,” he said.

Daniel Ramirez, left, and Rodolfo Martinez paint a hallway at the new First Financial Credit Union headquarters Dec. 30 in Albuquerque.

Moorehead said the credit union is looking to establish a mobile bank branch that can travel to rural areas and provide financial advice and services.

Mayte Munoz, left, and Elsa Armenta clean windows in the lobby of the new First Financial Credit Union building near Renaissance and Union Way NE.

There will also be a focus on technology as the next year progresses with plans to continue and institute technologies like self-service interactive teller machines, video services and guidance from financial counselors via the internet or telephone.

Moorehead said there are parts of New Mexico where banks and credit unions are “kind of scarce.”

“What you have left are payday lenders, predatory lenders, predatory financial institutions,” he said. “And they’re the only ones left because the larger banks have left, and we’re not there yet so that’s kind of where we want to be.”

Los Alamos Schools

Even smaller financial institutions like the Los Alamos Schools Credit Union will see growth this upcoming year.

After close to 60 years operating inside of Los Alamos schools facilities, the Los Alamos Schools Credit Union will be moving its headquarters into its first free-standing building around May, according to CEO Matt Schmidt.

The new headquarters comes at a time when the credit union has seen substantial growth.

Workers clean the floor of the employee break room at the new First Financial Credit Union headquarters building Dec. 30.

“Just during this year when I was expecting to have a lot of our members hesitating and maybe not being able to borrow or being hesitant to borrow … we’ve seen … double digit growth in our deposits and our loans,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt says he is looking forward to the credit union becoming more visible and expanding the membership.

“We’re just really excited to be more visible and to let the community see what cooperatives are all about,” he said.

U.S. Eagle

U.S. Eagle Federal Credit Union is also expanding with its 10th branch location opening at the beginning of next year, according to a spokeswoman.

Construction on the newest branch, at 1955 Juan Tabo NE, began in June. The branch will open in mid-January, public relations manager Nadine Buerger said in an email.

The new First Financial Credit Union headquarters.

“It’s a 3,500-square-foot full-service branch and will (include) drive-thru lanes, as well as a ‘user bar’ with devices to introduce members to online services such as their mobile app and online banking,” Buerger said.

This branch design will be replicated in future U.S. Eagle Branches, she said.

The bank will also be relocating its branch at 201 Third NW to a new location that has yet to be announced by the middle of the year.

Buerger said the Third Street location has been closed since March due to the pandemic.

The Old Wells Fargo Bank located at 7412 Jefferson NE will be turned into a new Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Chase Bank

Albuquerque is also adding a new name to its traditional bank roster next year with the opening of its first two Chase Bank branches.

“Albuquerque is an incredibly important market to us as we look to grow our branches,” said spokeswoman Maura Cordova. “Our commercial bank has been serving the New Mexico region for 12 years now and in Albuquerque, we already have over 140,000 consumer customers and 6,200 business banking customers.”

The first branch at 340 Eubank NE is planned to open by mid-year 2021 with a second branch at 6670 Indian School NE opening in the second half of next year, Cordova said.

“Our footprint will include a mix of full services branches and enhanced ATMs in and outside of the branch that can perform close to 70% of routine transactions,” she said.

Cordova said each branch will employ eight to 10 people.

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