KeyBank made sweeping financial commitments that took effect at the start of this year: $16.5 billion in loans and investments targeting underserved low- to moderate-income neighborhoods over five years.
The National Community Benefits Plan will touch all 23 of Key's markets across the country, including about $5.8 billion in the markets where Key and First Niagara used to compete with each other, before Key acquired First Niagara nearly one year ago.
As massive as the numbers are in the plan, Catherine Braniecki sees community-level opportunities within them. Earlier this year, Braniecki was named Key's regional corporate responsibility officer for upstate New York and New England. Her duties include helping oversee the rollout of the benefits plan, as well as Key's compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act.
The Lancaster resident joined Key in 1994, after working for 16 years at U.S. Housing and Urban Development. Braniecki's parents were born on the East Side, and she can pick out where her father's house was and the apartment where her mother used to live. She remembers the bakeries and corner taverns she would stroll past on walks with her grandfathers.
Key developed the community benefits plan with input from groups concerned about the impact of the Key-First Niagara deal.
Braniecki spoke recently to The News about the opportunities the loans and investments could bring to Buffalo, how the bank will measure the plan's progress and why it is taking so long to deliver on a pledge to open an additional branch on the East Side of Buffalo.
Q: How will this plan affect Buffalo?
A: I believe it raises the awareness of the work that we were previously doing. And then we added the enhancement of making a larger commitment, to really step up our game.
We always were very focused on community, neighborhoods. But with the benefits plan and the challenges that we heard from the community organizations, it really raised the awareness of the some of the other needs that are in the community, with, say, housing agencies or human and social service agencies, the workforce development-type programs.
Q: Was Key required to create this plan?
A: We voluntarily did it. It wasn't a requirement. We felt that it was a commitment we needed to make based on what we were hearing. ... We reached every department, from our mortgage folks, to our small business lending group that works with the branches, to our commercial lenders, we really hit everyone, [including] our community development lending group, who does a lot of the affordable housing projects.
We really worked with them to say, 'What is it you're seeing? What can you do? Tell us what your goal would be, and what's your stretch goal?'
Q: How much of the $5.8 billion directed to the overlapping Key-First Niagara markets will go to Buffalo?
A: They're not allocating by market. But Western New York is one of the largest of the overlap markets. Do I think there will be a strong emphasis here? I do. But when you take a look at the opportunities that are here, especially say, the Northland Corridor projects and all the other Buffalo Billion, and a lot of that gets filtered down to the smaller neighborhood organizations, I think we have great opportunities here.
Q: Who decides where the loans and investments go?
A: Actually, every relationship manager, every lender is involved in it, whether they know it or not. It's probably not always, when they're meeting with a customer, front and center. But actually every line of business is impacted, and it's all about how they do business with the community, how they source for new business, how they engage.
It's not like they're going out with that number in the back of their mind. They're just doing business as usual. And when it's all said and done, we'll be able to roll it up under the plan.
Q: What's an example of a beneficiary?
A: (PathStone Enterprise Center) was one of our largest grants we've made so far this year in Buffalo market. It's $1 million that will be paid out over five years to help them with their business development center, in the Beverly Gray Business Incubator on Jefferson [Avenue]. They actually had been there just about a year and had received support from the Oishei Foundation and from First Niagara.
What they had was a one-person operation, and with our money, they'll be able to add staff to begin to deploy the dollars they have to lend. They are focusing on Erie and Niagara counties, with minority- and women-owned businesses. ... We've worked with PathStone in the past, so it wasn't much of a leap for us to make another large commitment with them.
Q: How will you measure the plan's progress?
A: If I use PathStone as an example, every year they will give us an annual report, their efforts under the grant. There's a grant agreement for them that says, this is what our deliverables will be. We'll monitor it against that to be sure that we're holding them accountable, just as much as the community and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition will hold us accountable.
Clearly, I want to know that the money is being spent the way they said they would, and I want to be sure that we're meeting the needs of the community. If an organization can't do that, then we'd have to re-evaluate what we're doing. I guess I just don't want anything to go to waste.
Q: Key has pledged to open an additional bank branch on East Side. Why is that taking such a long time?
A: One, because you want to be sure of where you're siting it. You want to be sure that there are retail drivers that people will then be going to so that they would then visit the branch, as well. ... We're getting to the process of where they're going to come out to do some site visits, tour some neighborhoods here, in the next 90 to 120 days.
We would definitely look at (a new building), but it could be that it's in an area where there might be space already, and we can adapt that space. ... We also need to be sure we're not overlapping and stealing customers from each other.