Membership demand is driving branch openings on Spokane's South Hill, where a physical presence in that part of town has been a longtime goal for two financial institutions—Gesa Credit Union and Idaho Central Credit Union.
Gesa plans to convert the 5,900-square-foot former Applebee's restaurant building, at 2107 E. 29th, into its fifth Spokane County branch location, says Nathaniel Prior, the credit union's Spokane-based vice president of branches.
ICCU is building a 5,600-square-foot, $5 million branch at the site of a former Wells Fargo building, at 3065 S. Regal, about a block south of the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center, Manny Hochheimer, assistant vice president of Washington branches at ICCU previously told the Journal.
"You have to meet people where they are, and if (a South Hill branch) is what people are asking for and demanding, then we'll certainly listen and follow that," said Hochheimer in an October interview with the Journal.
At Gesa, Prior says that members have been requesting a South Hill branch for nearly a decade, but land prices and availability have made it challenging to move forward with a new-build project.
Requests for a South Hill presence began almost immediately after the Richland, Washington-based credit union entered the Spokane County market through a merger with Spokane-based Northland Credit Union, he says.
"Since 2015 we've been looking for the right opportunity to serve members in the area," says Prior, who moved to Spokane following the merger. "I quickly learned about the importance of the South Hill. We knew we wanted to (be there) as we grew in the market and it was just about finding the right opportunity."
The opportunity arrived last year for Gesa when the credit union purchased the Applebee's building and additional land for $2.5 million in September, according to Spokane County Assessor's records.
"It's tough finding a spot on the South Hill because everybody wants to be there," says Prior. "So when this (Applebee's) came open, we were very excited."
No permits have been issued for Gesa's South Hill branch, and Prior says he's unsure of the status of any permit applications.
Construction is expected to start this spring and wrap up in 2025, he confirms.
Final design plans for the branch aren't available yet, but Prior says the general goal for the remodel is to improve accessibility throughout the interior and create an atmosphere of privacy for members to feel comfortable discussing financial concerns.
"We use pods as a way to have more of an open space," he says. "Forty years ago, you needed giant teller lines with 12 stations, but we don't build branches like that anymore because that's not the need of the people."
Spokane-based MMEC Architecture & Interiors LLC is the project architect, as previously reported in the Journal.
Prior declines to disclose an estimated cost for the renovations.
Gesa also considered a new build, but Prior says that land prices and construction costs likely would limit the scope of the plans. Finding the former restaurant space turned out to be the better option for the credit union, he says.
Gesa has previous experience renovating a Denny's restaurant in Pullman, Washington, into a new branch in 2022, Prior says.
"We've done it once, why not do it a second time?" he says. "At the end of the day, not everybody wants an old Applebee's restaurant, so it was a great opportunity to repurpose a facility in a really good spot to meet our needs."
Gesa's new South Hill office is located within a small concentration of financial service providers on 29th Avenue. It's not intentional, but it is a testament to the value of having a presence in the community, Prior asserts.
"What's interesting about financial institutions is we tend to do better when we're close to each other," says Prior. "Being close to others does make a lot of sense, and it shows the stability of the area and (offers) convenience for the people there."
Members make use of both in-person banking options and digital financial services, Prior says.
Hochheimer, of ICCU, echoed that sentiment and says branches are just as important as digital financial services.
"Everybody in the banking and in the financial industry knows that you've got to have great top-of-the-line digital banking products, which we do. But branches are still important (because) people want to see that physical presence," said Hochheimer in an October conversation with the Journal.
Chubbuck, Idaho-based ICCU established a Spokane presence in 2022, after it purchased the former Banner Bank Building, at 41 W. Riverside, and opened a branch there.
Gesa remains committed to in-person service options because its members continue to use it, Prior explains.
"Members tend to go to branches when they want advice, or if they have a problem, or they're just used to doing business in person," says Prior. "For questions about certificate of deposit rates or what it's like to have a mortgage, a lot of people want a person to talk to."
The building itself also serves a marketing purpose as a physical reminder to the community that helps put eyes on the brand.
"Branches remind people that you're there in the community ... even if its subconscious," Prior says.
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