A t first glance, Start Bank on Whalley Avenue seems a lot like any other. There’s a row of teller stations, a spacious reception area and an ATM at the front entrance.
But this isn’t any ordinary bank. For starters, in a city full of branches bearing the names of large out-of-state companies, Start is the only locally owned, governed and managed bank in New Haven, and its leaders are passionate about keeping it that way.
Among them is one of the most familiar faces in the city: former Mayor John DeStefano Jr (pictured third). He’s been the bank’s executive vice president since January, when his 20-year tenure as New Haven’s longest-serving mayor came to a close. Start is “deeply rooted in the community,” says DeStefano, smiling proudly. “We get to know people up close and personal.”
Now that Start is over five years old, it’s easy to forget that it took roughly five years to become a reality. In 2004, the New Haven Savings Bank, a longtime community lending institution, merged with a pair of small banks located elsewhere to form a public company called NewAlliance Bank. Vocal New Haveners, DeStefano at the lead, protested the move, fearing an end to the kind of community-oriented banking they felt could be trusted to serve the city’s best interests. The resulting clamor won a concession from NewAlliance: $25 million deposited into a non-profit holding company called First City Fund Corp., which would use that money to launch a community banking venture to replace the one New Haven had just lost.
That venture would come to be known as START Community Bank (now simplified to Start Bank), officially formed in 2009. In 2010 it opened the doors of two fledgling branches, a Whalley Avenue location on the outskirts of downtown and another in Fair Haven. The latter, having never quite taken off, closed earlier this year; now the Whalley branch is the sole inheritor of New Haven’s community banking tradition, where success is measured in dollars and cents, yes, but also in how those dollars and cents are working to improve the lives of the people of Greater New Haven.
The bulk of Start’s work focuses on commercial accounts, serving small local businesses whose owners get to meet directly, in person, with those making the decisions about their loan and banking services. This direct interaction allows bank leaders to make relatively quick decisions about lending and other matters, notes President and CEO Maureen Frank (pictured second), and is a nice throwback to how banks used to be before everything became so institutionalized.
Other aspects of its work are much less traditional. Aside from business owners, Start works with four key population segments whose members are likelier than most to lack banking education and opportunity: youths, immigrants, the homeless and former prisoners.
The bank connects with these constituencies through partners at local agencies and nonprofits. For instance, individuals working with the Columbus House to overcome homelessness sometimes have custodial bank accounts opened on their behalf. Most of those accounts, we’re told, are held at Start Bank. Similarly, undocumented immigrants who open bank accounts tend to have them at Start, as do many young people earning their first paychecks through the city’s Youth@Work initiative.
The bank doesn’t just hold people’s funds for safekeeping; it also strives to help account holders make the most out of those funds. In 2013, bank employees conducted 142 hours of financial literacy training, reaching roughly 1,100 people from young students at Columbus Family Academy to retirees affiliated with the New Haven Housing Authority.
Because of all the work it does for underserved populations, the bank is often misperceived as working only with those clienteles, Frank says. In fact, Start is open to all businesses and individuals in the community, regardless of their banking history or background.
To that end, New Haveners will soon begin noticing increased marketing and outreach efforts intended to familiarize residents with what Start Bank does. Leaders believe a growing number of customers will be drawn to the young institution because of its local roots and commitments.
In an era when “big banks” aren’t inspiring much confidence or loyalty, the idea of a small community bank might be just crazy enough to work.
299 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 9am-4pm, Thurs-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-noon
Written by Cara Rosner. Photographed by Dan Mims.