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Credit union sees spike in interest after beginning of Occupy rally

Local demonstrations initially inspired by New York's Occupy Wall Street protest may be responsible for creating their own ripples of economic change in the Rogue Valley.

"They definitely have some sort of role in all of this," said Gene Pelham, president of Rogue Federal Credit Union, whose seven operating branches have seen a significant jump in the number of opened personal accounts since the occupy protests spread to Southern Oregon three weeks ago.

"We did actually see a spike "… and it's pretty significant," Pelham said.

Pelham said from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, the branches combined to open 1,000 new accounts, about 300 more than they would normally open in that period. He said the credit union's Ashland branch opened an "impressive" 34 new accounts in one day, on Oct. 6, the second day of the Occupy Ashland protest.

"They've told me stories that it was crazy in there that day," Pelham said. "They were slammed "… I guess we had lines of people coming from the protest to open new accounts."

Pelham said any individual branch typically opens about two or three new accounts a day. The Oct. 6 spike was the highest at any RFCU branch for that period, but the number of accounts being opened has remained unusually high since the beginning of October, Pelham said.

"We're excited that new customers are getting a chance to experience the services that Rogue Federal Credit Union has to offer," he said.

"Of course, we never want that due to the ill will of someone else," Pelham said. "But it's nice that consumers have a choice of financial institutions and they're deciding on us."

Protesters, who have been occupying the sidewalk in front of Ashland's Chase Bank for every business day since Oct. 5, have been advocating for people to pull their money out of Chase and other large banks, and to put it in local credit unions.

"I did it," said Gene Burnett, 54, of Ashland, a longtime customer of Bank of America. "I'm moving the vast majority of my money to Rogue (Federal) Credit Union."

Burnett said at least for now, he will keep a few hundred dollars in an open checking account at Bank of America, and will wait to move another chunk of money he has in a certificate of deposit there, to avoid fees for closing it prematurely.

Burnett said he feels more comfortable with his money in the credit union, because he knows the money has a better chance of staying in the Rogue Valley when it's lent out by the institution.

"I'll be doing the same thing," said Mara Owens, 43, of Ashland. "I'm just tied up with U.S. Bank right now."

Owens said she will eventually move her money to the Ashland RFCU.

Carrie Nelson, assistant manager of Chase in Ashland, said she could not comment on whether the protests have had any negative impacts on the branch.

Chase protest organizer Robbie Lindauer, 42, said 91 people have told him that they will, or already have, taken their money out of Chase bank since the protest started.

That number couldn't be confirmed with Chase, as media representatives for the bank did not return phone messages.

Not all local credit unions are seeing a significant increase, however.

David Elmer, president of First Community Credit Union, of which Southern Oregon Federal Credit Union is an affiliate, said although the last three months show a steady increase in the number of new accounts being opened through its Southern Oregon branches, there is no noticeable spike.

"We are actively opening hundreds of new accounts every month," he said, "but it's nothing I can equate directly to what's going on right now with the occupy protests."

Although protesters in front of Chase each business day generally number fewer than 10, Lindauer said hearing news about accounts being opened at local credit unions and dropped from big banks gives him the energy and momentum to continue the effort.

"It's been tough," he said, "but every day someone has been out here. "… We're still here, and we still want the bank closed."

Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.


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