The shuttered Huntington Bank branch on Kenmore Boulevard is poised to be transformed into a financial services center for residents in the city's Kenmore neighborhood.
United Way of Summit County, the City of Akron and Huntington National Bank announced on Thursday they will create the county's first financial empowerment center in the former 4,000-square-foot branch at 1060 Kenmore Blvd.
Huntington closed its bank branch there on Sept. 29 and is donating the property to United Way for the new project.
The empowerment center, expected to open in early 2018, is modeled after financial empowerment centers in several U.S. cities, including Nashville, where United Way CEO Jim Mullins was employed before joining United Way in Summit County.
The centers, pioneered by Bloomberg Philanthropies, have successfully served communities across the U.S. with demographics similar to many areas of Summit County, Mullins said.
"People are going to work every day but they need an extra lift to get to place of financial stability," he said. In Nashville, the centers grew slowly at first — serving 500 clients the first year. It grew exponentially in year three to serve 5,000 clients once residents saw positive results.
Mullins sees the Kenmore empowerment center as the first of several such centers the United Way will launch in Summit County. It will be staffed by United Way-trained certified financial counselors, who will work with residents at no charge, helping them build assets, reduce debt, budget for the future, improve their credit scores and access safe and affordable banking services.
Mullins said Huntington Bank's donation is a big boon for Kenmore because it's in an ideal, central location.
"Our friends and neighbors will now have access to sound financial education and counseling, which will strengthen the fabric of our community by enabling families to pursue their dreams and secure a future filled with financial success," said Nicholas Browning, president of Huntington Bank's Greater Akron Region, in a news release.
The Financial Empowerment Center also will support United Way's Bold Goals, which aim to improve key conditions in the community by 2025. One of those goals is to financially empower 11,000 Akron residents who are working, but who are struggling to get traction financially.
The goal of the center is not to compete with social services agencies, which Akron Councilman Mike Freeman said initially concerned him.
"Kenmore is not a hand-out community," he said. "This is the right time and the right place for this program. There are a lot of families where mom and dad are both working yet it's a real stretch to make ends meet."
The Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance and other groups hosted a successful Better Block festival in September. More than 4,000 people attended the festival over two days, patronizing pop-up businesses and local vendors on the Boulevard, re-imagining what the neighborhood could be with added resources.
The alliance recently was awarded $240,000 by the Knight Foundation to work with the North Akron and Middlebury community development corporations to devise strategies to improve the neighborhoods.
"We're happy there will be financial resources for our residents and that they'll get real, ongoing financial counselling so they can help themselves and their families," said Tina Boyes, Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance spokeswoman.
Economic development is a priority for the alliance, which wants the Boulevard to be a welcoming place for existing and new businesses to set up shop in Kenmore.
"My hope is the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance and United Way can work together to provide basic business-type services," Boyes said. "Our businesses need to see that we haven't forgotten them."
"We see this as very empowering for Kenmore residents and the Boulevard," said James Hardy, Akron's chief of staff. "It's about helping a working-class neighborhood that doesn't receive any support because they make too much, but not enough to grow their family stability."
And, as Kenmore residents gain stronger financial footing, they'll be more likely to reinvest in their community.
"Who is most likely to start a great, small business in Kenmore? Someone who has a heart for Kenmore; a resident," Hardy said.
Freeman also sees the center eventually as benefiting local business.
"A little nudge can open up some more revenue so residents will be able to spend more locally," he said.
Part of the beauty of the initiative is being able to learn from Nashville, which found that large-scale advertising of the centers was largely ineffective, Mullins said.
Marketing for the Kenmore center will be grassroots, focusing on popular local places, like coffee shops, the library and the schools.
"In a tight-knit community like Kenmore, word of mouth referral is going to be the bread and butter," he said.
The success of the center in large part will be in the hands of the center's organizers.
"The onus is on us to provide great service and ensure Kenmore residents' – who are seeking financial assistance – lives improve," Hardy said.
To learn more about the Financial Empowerment Center, visit United Way's website.