Saturday, May 17, 2008

Thanks for coming. Now what?

I was driving down the street today and heard a commercial that made me wonder ... why?

It was an ad for the Bank of America, and went something like this:
"The city that brought you ginger ale (Vernor's), and the first freeway (the Davison), Motown (Stevie! Marvin! Smokey!), and the Joe Louis fist, now has Bank of America. And, you're welcome, Detroit."

It's my paraphrasing license and I'll use it as I want to. But that was the gist of it. You've made your mark Detroit, now we're here to make ours with you, is what I heard.

I'm sure Bank of America has the greatest of intentions. Part of my problem is that I'm sick of consolidation, not just in the banking industry, but across the board. I passed Eastland today and the Marshal Field's sign that replaced the Hudson's sign had yet to be replaced by the sign for Macy's which essentially gobbled up both of them two years ago. I wondered if that's because another move is underfoot somewhere to consolidate Macy's with someone else. Hmm?

But back to banking.

In a city which has a ridiculously high poverty rate, where far too many people rely on check cashing outlets, payday advance providers and other non-traditional financial service operators, a new bank coming to town should be welcome news, right? We'll see.

One thing I do know is that as we welcome the new bank there are way more former bank branches that are now laundromats, party stores, dollar stores and hair care products retailers than I can count. I wonder whether the future state of banking in urban Detroit, and urban America will ever truly serve consumers in neighborhoods that need them most.

About five months ago I saw one of my longtime neighbors at a local party store conducting some type of financial transaction at the party store owner's surrogate teller window. I didn't want to seem nosy, as she was obviously embarrassed at having me see her there. Two months ago she walked away from her home, leaving yet another vacant house in the neighborhood. I don't think this is a coincidence.

There are an estimated 28 million un-banked and 44.7 million under-banked people in the U.S. today, representing a potential market of 40 million households with little or no current relationship with a financial institution. Under-served consumers generate more than $1.1 trillion in annual income, of which un-banked consumers represent nearly $510 billion each year. The Center for Financial Services Innovation reports that Americans spend at least $10.9 billion on more than 324 million alternative financial transactions a year. That represents opportunity.

So Detroit, although we've been living the life into which Bank of America has seemingly implanted itself I guess we should say, err, um, "thank you?"

The truth is, our region will never rebound itself unless people have the necessary options and education needed to make sound financial decisions. Also, until we figure out a way to put an end to this foreclosure madness. We need our elected leadership to step up -- now. Politicians in other cities are doing as much.

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