Some see silver lining in Park National Bank cloud

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No matter what the outcome in the Park National Bank seizure, the situation has broken down barriers between the Austin community and Oak Park residents.

It’s the silver lining in the cloud that has hung over those two communities since  October. That’s when the popular neighborhood bank, located in Oak Park, was seized by federal regulators, said Rev. Marshall Hatch, a member of the Coalition to Save Community Banking, a grassroots organization formed in response to the takeover and forced sale.

“There’s much less of a barrier between Austin and Oak Park,” said Hatch, representing the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park. “This has brought people together. It’s a grassroots response to what communities all over the country are feeling as they’re gobbled up by bankers who got bailout money.”

Hatch was one of several speakers at a community meeting Saturday held by the coalition. About 100 people attended the sometimes sermon-like event, held at the Light of Liberty Church of God and Christ in Oak Park, not far from Park National’s former branch at the corner of Austin and Madison.

The purpose of the meeting was to update attendees on a situation that has caused outcry throughout Oak Park and Chicago’s West Side since federal regulators seized Park National Bank and its parent company and turned operations over to US Bank.

Park National’s community philanthropy made it unique in the banking world, and many in the area worry about whether U.S. Bank will perform those same community functions. That’s one question Beth Harvey, owner of Harvey House Bed & Breakfast in Oak Park, says she already knows the answer to.

Harvey said when she started her business, she went to Park National after being turned down for loans by other banks. She was shocked when bank owner Mike Kelly showed up at her door, toured her place, and asked how the bank might help other small businesses in the area. When she later went through tough times, Kelly gave her a line of credit.

Yet when Harvey recently asked U.S. Bank for a loan, “I was turned down,” she said. “They offered me a credit card.”

Praise on Saturday ran high for River Forest resident Kelly, who was known for lending to customers in Austin and West Garfield Park. After the 2007 closing of Austin High School, Kelly extended a $22 million, no-interest loan to build Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School; students began attending class in the new building Jan. 4.

The bank was known for giving zero-percent loans to neighborhood organizations and schools and giving money to community organizations through grants, as well as doing things like cleaning up houses that had been subject to foreclosure.

To ensure that U.S. Bank treats the community the same way, the coalition is trying to negotiate a Community Benefit Agreement with the bank, said Quiwana Reed-Bell, community development director at the Westside Health Authority.

The coalition has several requests for the bank: to honor commitments made by Park National, ensure local hiring and fair lending practices, ensure that foreclosures are not done on a whim and provide grants and funding support, with a community advisory committee directing where monies should go.

“They’re gonna have a set of standards to live by,” said Reed-Bell. “We’re moving forward with specific expectations.”

Dozens of Park National supporters recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a congressional hearing on the seizure and selling of Park National and its other banks. Elce Redmond, a coalition member and South Austin Coalition organizer who made the round-trip bus trip, said since then the group has grown even stronger.

“It’s going on three-and-a-half months and we’ve increased in size as well as militancy,” Redmond said.

The coalition is calling on the bank regulator’s inspector general to investigate the actions against Park National by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which regulates and supervises all national banks.

Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), assistant majority leader of the Illinois Senate, said he wants the appropriate committee to continue an investigation of the seizure.

“This is not done yet,” Harmon said.

Meanwhile, Hatch and the coalition’s “rag-tag band of disciples” are holding two events. The debut of “Too Good To Fail,” a documentary about their trip to Washington, D.C., will play at 7 p.m. March 25 at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd. in Chicago. A demonstration at the FDIC and U.S. Bank will be held at 9 a.m. March 31, beginning at the Westside Health Authority, 4800 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago.

“We lost a lot, and we’re not going to take it sitting down,” said Hatch.

Nicholas Myers contributed to this report.

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