RICHARD’S LANDING – Just a few months after Northern Credit Union (NCU) announced it would be closing and consolidating several of its smaller branches this June, including its last remaining Manitoulin location in Little Current, its landlords in Richard’s Landing on St. Joseph’s Island have enacted a plan to keep the branch active for local customers.
“My husband and I are just very thankful that NCU opened up and worked with us on our idea,” said Katherine Henshell, who, alongside her husband Thomas, owns the building that houses NCU in Richard’s Landing. “We presented them with an option that wasn’t all or nothing and I think they wanted that as a solution because they want to keep on serving their customers as best they could.”
The NCU branch in Richard’s Landing is the only banking service offered on St. Joseph’s Island.
NCU will offer in-person services for walk-ins two hours every weekday afternoon, plus appointments in the mornings. The credit union employees will split their time between Richard’s Landing and other branches.
“We are thankful that we were able to reach a mutual agreement that will make a real difference for our community,” said Mr. Henshell.
NCU began to announce its branch closure plans in mid-February. The notice included Little Current and Richard’s Landing among the list of closures, meaning members would have to drive an extra 40 minutes to Espanola or Thessalon, respectively, as their nearest locations that will remain open.
It marked the end of nearly 70 years of service from credit unions on Manitoulin.
The Richard’s Landing branch is physically larger than the Little Current office and the Henshells quickly recognized that excess space was likely a factor in the credit union’s impending closure. They floated an idea to NCU’s executives about cutting the space to the bare essentials and rebuilding the floorplan to allow for another tenant with a separate entrance. They would also offer concessions on rent as part of the co-operative agreement.
“We could see that the idea was resonating in the right way. You knew, when talking with them, that they couldn’t give an answer right away and had to take it up the chain of command,” Ms. Henshell said, describing the organization as model tenants. “They’ve always been open, candid and worked to find the best arrangement for both of us.”
The closure of a branch would have been difficult for Island residents, just as it will be for Manitoulin. St. Joseph’s Island, too, has a single bridge connecting it with the mainland, which occasionally closes or goes under construction, as it currently is.
Its demographics are also largely seniors who tend to need in-person services for their daily banking needs, who also have a difficult time driving long distances—especially in the winter—to fulfil such needs.
St. Joe’s also has the complication of poor internet availability and, when connections are available, they often pick up American towers because of the border’s proximity, meaning users can rack up massive roaming bills if they don’t keep an eye on their connection status.
“Bank closures, sure it’s a foreseeable thing with online banking, but it’s not accessible to everybody,” Ms. Henshell said.
NCU’s branches on the two islands are set to close June 1. The co-op system was set to take over seamlessly but there will be a small gap to finish renovations in the Richard’s Landing location before it re-opens at the reduced capacity.
The satellite co-op branch will offer investment and lending advisory, in addition to payments, drafts, account transfers and cash withdrawals through an ATM.
This pilot project will remain in place for two years. If it proves to be a success, NCU said it would consider partnering with other community groups in underserved areas.
“This has good potential to be a win-win in many remote communities,” said Richard Adam, NCU president and CEO. “We hope our service will attract new members and encourage people to make Northern their primary financial institution, to ensure the ongoing success of the pilot.”
An NCU release noted that the relatively short distance between its major branch in Sault Ste. Marie and Richard’s Landing (45 minutes) was a key part of why it decided to move forward with the co-operative proposal.
The Expositor left voicemails with NCU about the possibility of expanding co-operative solutions to other locations, such as Manitoulin Island, but did not receive a response by press deadline Monday.