The newly renovated Select Federal Credit Union headquarters on San Antonio's Eastside. Credit: Patrick Wong for KAI Design & Build)

Located on San Antonio’s Eastside, Select Federal Credit Union can trace its roots back to the city’s past as a railroad hub. It was originally chartered as a San Antonio railroad federal credit union in 1939 to serve employees of the Southern Pacific S.A. Division.

The Eastside was first settled by freed slaves during Reconstruction. It was one of the few areas where San Antonio’s African-American residents could buy a home, and they faced harsh segregation reinforced by the arrival of the railroad, whose right-of-way further solidified the division between the Eastside and other parts of the city (a pattern reinforced yet again when interstate highways eventually carved their way across the city).

Is change now coming to the Eastside? The area garnered a 2014 designation by President Barack Obama as one of the first five “Promise Zones,” which the former administration established to fight poverty through “holistic community-based approaches.” At the time of the Promise Zone designation, the Eastside had a 35.2 percent poverty rate and an unemployment rate over 11 percent.

Concern over the lack of investment on the Eastside encouraged years of community advocacy, which eventually secured millions of dollars in grants for housing and education even before the Promise Zone designation arrived. (Promise Zone designations did not actually come with federal funding, only staff support.)

Select Federal Credit Union had been working on its own to adapt to changes in the Eastside community. Several years ago, the credit union got federally certified as a community development financial institution (CDFI), “to better serve low- and moderate-income families,” said John Garcia, who handles business development and marketing at the credit union. CDFI designation provides access to federal and other resources allowing the credit union to offer no-fee accounts and work with members with credit challenges to secure loans.

“It makes things more affordable for our membership and community,” Garcia said.

After gaining CDFI designation, Select Federal Credit Union acknowledged another hurdle ahead: many community members didn’t know it existed.

“For being around for over 70 years, you still had a big part of the community who wasn’t familiar with Select Federal Credit Union,” Garcia said.

The credit union looked to increase its presence within the Eastside just as the area gained its Promise Zone designation. Though the credit union is not inside the official borders of the Eastside Promise Zone, community leaders had a vested interest in including the credit union in their larger vision of the area’s revitalization.

“Thirty percent of residents in the Eastside are considered not bankable,” said Mike Etienne, director of the Promise Zone initiative for the City of San Antonio, adding that payday loan lenders had proliferated in the area, serving residents unable to secure low-interest loans.

Another challenge, community organizer Juan Garcia added, was that “a lot of people within the community do not trust banks … It’s a big challenge just to bring people through the door.”

With support from the Promise Zone staff, Select Federal Credit Union invested in a full renovation of its headquarters, led by the firm KAI Design & Build. “The building had not seen a major transformation in 30 years,” said Darren L. James, president of KAI Texas. “The goal was to create a statement piece so the public knows [they’re] here,” he said. The renovations were completed in November 2017.

KAI added a community meeting room in the design, which the credit union could open to Eastside residents. Local nonprofits now use it for meetings and meet-and-greets. “We encourage residents who come to sign up at the credit union,” Etienne said. “Visibility and accessibility was the goal.”

On top of the renovation of its headquarters, Select Federal Credit Union spearheaded outreach with neighborhood associations and opened a mini-branch in the nearby Ella Austin Community Center to increase its local presence. Garcia called it a rebranding that was “introducing ourselves to the community as an option.”

Garcia said the credit union’s membership has grown, and the neighborhood has, too – although gentrification has crept into the area, causing property values to rise.

This year, Credit Human – one of San Antonio’s largest credit unions – will move its headquarters into the Eastside Promise Zone proper, renovating a previously abandoned structure into a 10-story LEED-certified building that will house 435 employees. Etienne said Promise Zone representatives assisted the financial institution with site selection, as well as $8.8 million in City and County incentives offered for the move.

The addition of a second credit union to the community is welcome, Etienne said. “The perception of the Promise Zone being a high-poverty, unbankable community is changing,” he said. “The presence [of credit unions] says that the Promise Zone is now open for business.”

Emily Nonko is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing covers real estate, architecture, urbanism, design, transit, history, and more – in New York and far beyond.