It started with a letter. More than two dozen of them, actually. Bankers from around Memphis got a missive from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. in 2010 that solicited help from bankers like Joe DiNicolantonio, West Tennessee area president for Regions Bank.
Others who got the letter from the mayor were the likes of BankTennessee, Magna Bank, Paragon National Bank and Hope Community Credit Union and a few more.
The idea that Wharton wanted the city to get involved with, along with other civic groups, was kick starting a campaign to reach out to people who don’t visit or use traditional bank branches.
Thousands of Memphis households, Wharton wrote, don’t have a checking or savings account and rely instead on payday lenders and other high-cost, alternative financial sources.
That episode came in the early days of an attempt to start “Bank On Memphis,” a campaign to educate those consumers and to spur banks to tailor financial products especially for them.
Back in 2010, Wharton brought the recipients of his letter into his seventh floor conference room at City Hall and laid everything out.
“I started my law career representing low-income people,” Wharton said, telling representatives of banks like Paragon, First Tennessee and Trustmark about the law course he once taught at Ole Miss.
“My hope is that anywhere a citizen of Shelby County turns and wants to, they can find and get a financial education.”
Shelby County Trustee
Recalling a quote from a textbook he used to teach from, the mayor said: “Poor people don’t really have legal problems. They have money problems.”
Memphis’ effort would be modeled after “Bank On” programs in San Francisco, Boston, New York City and elsewhere.
The program got off to a slow start and didn’t really get up and running at full speed after that gathering in 2010. So Wharton, now with the addition of Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir, decided to re-announce the program at the end of 2012.
Then, as before, a goal of the program would be to better explain the banking process and its benefits to poorer citizens to try and keep them from avoiding the traditional financial services industry.
The re-launch is focusing, at least from the outset, on the South Memphis area. But even though the special focus is South Memphis, the program’s intent is for it to catch fire throughout the county.
“My hope is that anywhere a citizen of Shelby County turns and wants to, they can find and get a financial education,” Lenoir said. “And that there will be a provider there that they can go to and say, ‘I need some fine-tuning or a basic brush-up on budgeting.’ How to keep their checkbook register reconciled. Things like that.”
Wharton and Lenoir joined a formal ceremony Feb. 2 in the lobby of the Soulsville Towne Center, at which a new incentive program with United Housing Inc. to provide mortgage assistance to a limited number of Bank On Memphis participants also was announced.
Partners in Bank On Memphis include the RISE (Responsibility, Initiative, Solutions, Empowerment) Foundation, Shelby County Trustee’s Office, the City of Memphis and the Memphis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Also involved are several local banks, credit unions and community organizations.
“Folks will hopefully take this education, walk into a Regions or Tri-State Bank branch and say, ‘I want more information about the Bank On Memphis program,’” Lenoir said. “Tri-State will say, ‘Let me tell you about our Bank On Memphis product.’ And hopefully that individual who’s never been banked before, he or she opens up a bank account. It will, I believe, over time change the financial health of our community.”