Shortly before Hurricane Katrina, ASI FCU planned to open a branch in the Ninth Ward. The credit union was ready to begin construction of the new branch when disaster struck. "We knew that there was such incredible need within the Ninth Ward," said the credit union’s CEO Audrey Cerise. "Residents in that community simply had no access to affordable financial services. Had our branch opened it would have been the only financial institution located in the entire Ninth Ward."
Katrina pounded New Orleans without mercy, and unleashed special fury on the Ninth Ward. As the levies failed, many of the 4,000 homes in the neighborhood were flattened by floodwaters or simply swept off their foundations. With virtually 100% of the housing damaged or destroyed, ASII started to purchase homes that could be rehabilitated and sold to low-income homebuyers at deep discounts.
ASII made much progress in the past year, but recognized that housing alone would not reestablish the community. As a result, they identified a large warehouse on a major thoroughfare of the Upper Ninth Ward that could be converted into a thriving community center.
ASII is currently in the process of raising funds to purchase the $250,000 property and expect renovation costs for the project to run an additional $250,000, but the credit union is taking this one step at a time.
"At the moment, our biggest priority is securing the property," said Cerise. "There has been a lot of real-estate speculation in the neighborhood by investors looking for bargains, and we see this facility and its prime location as ideal for a community center."
The proposed community center would attract many other resources, making the community a vibrant and thriving place to live for families and children. Cerise hopes the community center will spark a wider revitalization of the community.
Councilman Oliver Thomas, President of the New Orleans City Council, has been instrumental in linking the nonprofit and credit union staff with other area stakeholders, nonprofits, and vital service providers who are also interested in setting up shop within the proposed community center.
"The Federation established the Community Development Relief and Rebuilding Fund shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to help low-income credit unions and their members get back on their feet," said the Federation's Executive Director, Cliff Rosenthal. "The clearest way to do this is to help ASI FCU and ASII to revitalize the St. Claude community."
Jeff Wells, chairperson of the Federation’s Capitalization Committee which approved the Fund award, agreed.
"We were especially impressed by the comprehensive, multi-service vision ASII developed, including space for a credit union, for community nonprofits, for recreation, an after-school program, and even a small café and deli to teach disadvantaged teens about entrepreneurship," said Wells. "It’s an exciting vision, and one which the credit union will play a highly visible role."
Cerise appreciates the help. "This project needs the collaboration of many partners, great and small," said Cerise. "We are forever grateful for the support lent to us by the Federation, an organization that has taught us what community development really means." She added, "It is our hope that the matched grant funding opportunity will inspire other organizations to help us rebuild this once vital community."