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Banks devoting more attention, investment to East Side

The East Side is finally getting more attention from the region's banks.

For years, talk of banking on the East Side has centered on how there are too few branches, and too many check-cashing places and pawn shops filling the void. When a neighborhood is "underbanked," its residents are stuck with high-cost alternatives.

Now there are signs banks are devoting more attention, as well as resources, to the problem.

• Northwest Bank has opened a new branch on Jefferson Avenue.

• KeyBank plans to open a branch this spring, at East Delavan Avenue and Grider Street, by renovating part of a shuttered Rite Aid.

• M&T Bank just spent $2 million to upgrade four East Side branches.

New and improved branches don't solve everything, but they're a visible sign of investment and commitment. As many banks scale back their branch networks, the places where banks choose to open new locations stand out. And community leaders say brick-and-mortar locations remain essential to a neighborhood, to help residents build wealth.

In fact, when Key announced it was acquiring First Niagara, community leaders were worried that deal would lead to even fewer branches in lower-income communities, and spoke out about it.

Key already has some branches on the East Side, and took its time choosing a location for a new one. A community meeting provided input on where a branch would make a difference.

"What we've learned through this process is there's many versions of the East Side, so where's the best place to be?" said Catherine Braniecki, who recently retired as Key's Northeast corporate responsibility officer. "Most people forgot about [Key branches at] Bailey-Amherst or Broadway Market, or even Conventus is on the east side of Main Street."

Braniecki said in her travels to the nearby Northland Workforce Training Center, through the Delavan-Grider neighborhood, "this area kind of came to light, especially with the anticipation of the number of people that will either be working or being trained at Northland. So this is the perfect location, in my opinion."

Branches are only part of the story.

M&T has a longstanding connection to the East Side through its leadership in the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood. The bank-led nonprofit initiative focuses on educational opportunities in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Both Key and Northwest are pumping more money into lower-income areas of the region, including the East Side, in the form of loans and investments. They each launched five-year community benefits plans at the start of 2017, related to the sale of First Niagara Bank. While Key acquired First Niagara, Northwest bought 18 of the First Niagara branches to resolve anti-competitive concerns, and turned into a more visible local player.

Northwest's community benefits plan for the region is valued at $102 million. Key's plan is valued at $16.5 billion, but it touches markets in all 15 states where Key operates. Key said that through September, it had invested more than $290 million in Western New York under the plan.

Northwest's former president and CEO, William Wagner, said he gained a new perspective when he walked Buffalo's neighborhoods as Northwest was buying the First Niagara branches. He met residents who told him they had never been in a bank branch, or didn't feel welcome inside one. Wagner said that was a mindset he was determined to change.

Just down the street from Northwest's new branch on Jefferson, the branch will sponsor a financial education center, in conjunction with Belmont Housing Resources for WNY, that will be open to anyone. John J. Golding, Northwest's New York region president, said the education center won't promote Northwest products or services. Its purpose will be to help residents improve their financial literacy.

Both Northwest and Key are entering year three of their five-year community benefits plans. Northwest's new branch just opened its doors, and Key's new branch is expected to open this spring.

Transformations take time. The new branches and the investment through the community benefits plans could be the start of something.

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