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Community groups raise questions about Key-First Niagara deal

As KeyCorp plans to acquire First Niagara Financial Group for $4.1 billion, people like Lucy Velez worry about low-income residents or those with language barriers being left behind.

“We are part of the mosaic of Buffalo,” Velez said. “We’re not the creme de la creme, but we’re not sour cream, either.”

Velez spoke on a frigid Friday outside the Larkin at Exchange building, home of First Niagara’s headquarters. Four community groups – the Western New York Law Center, PUSH Buffalo, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and the Partnership for the Public Good – brought together Velez and others to talk about how the deal could adversely affect Buffalo neighborhoods and access to banking services.

“There’s been a lot of conversation at a high level about the jobs, about the impact on business, but there’s really been no conversation about the impact on our communities,” said John Washington, a community organizer with PUSH Buffalo. “Buffalo is a grossly underserved city by the banking community. We see it in the segregation of the city and the distribution of where banks are, and the services they offer.”

The community groups detailed their concerns in a letter to Federal Reserve Bank officials that Assemblyman Michael Kearns, D-Buffalo, also signed. They mentioned everything from the loss of bank branches, to low rates of lending to minorities, to the prospect of just two banks – M&T Bank and KeyCorp – controlling a combined regional deposit market share of 83 percent. (The post-merger figure could be somewhat lower, depending on branches sold to other institutions.) Such domination would severely limit customers’ choices for financial products and services, said Thomas Keily of the WNY Law Center.

Federal Reserve officials are collecting public comments on the deal as it decides whether to approve the purchase; the deadline for submitting comments is Sunday. KeyCorp hopes to complete the deal in the third quarter.

Bob Cook of PUSH Buffalo, who is a longtime West Side resident, said banking services should be expanded in areas that lack them. That includes making available products and services that allow people to be financially independent, such as small business loans, microloans and financial guidance where needed, he said.

“We don’t hate banks,” Cook said. “We want banks to be allies in our communities, allies in helping to rebuild Buffalo along with rebuilding our communities.”

Cleveland-based KeyCorp’s planned purchase has stirred fears of devastating job cuts and branch closings in the region. KeyCorp officials, including CEO Beth Mooney, have met with representatives of the community groups.

“They’ve offered to continue working with us,” Washington said. “We’re kind of back and forth with them about what we’d like to see, and I think that these comments are a way for us to let them and the rest of the community know what is possible.”

Therese Myers, a KeyCorp spokeswoman, said the bank “is committed to Western New York and all of the communities it serves.”

Key has a “strong legacy and track record of community investment and civic participation,” and the bank intends to invest “more than $13.5 billion across all of our communities over the next seven years,” Myers said. That investment, she said, will take the form of “community development lending and investing, residential mortgages, small business lending and transformative philanthropy focused on thriving students, a thriving workforce and thriving neighborhoods.”

Comments can be submitted to the Federal Reserve at: comments.applications@clev.frb.gov.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com