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Credit union enjoys growth spurt
Santa Rosa-based Community First Credit Union, begun 50 years ago, opens new branch in Guerneville

  • Sister Sparkle Plenty, President and Mistress of Ceremonies with the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, blesses the opening of the Community First Credit Union branch in Guerneville on Thursday afternoon. (John Burgess / PD)

Community First Credit Union, started 50 years ago by seven Sonoma County teachers, is experiencing a growth spurt as frustration continues with big national banks over the recession and housing downturn.

The Santa Rosa-based credit union opened a new branch in Sebastopol in December and this month unveiled a larger, more prominent branch in Guerneville.

"People are upset with the larger institutions and the number of fees," said Todd Sheffield, president and chief executive of the 12,000-member credit union. "We are definitely starting to see new members and accounts from that national trend."

The credit union, which is open to anyone living in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, has seen its membership grow about 7 percent each of the last two years, Sheffield said.

"That has definitely been some of our best growth over our last 10 years," he said.

The small credit union, which has $120 million in assets, is the second largest in Sonoma County but less than one-tenth the size of Santa Rosa-based Redwood Credit Union.

In recent years, it has invested heavily in mobile-banking technology. The bank's West County locations are scaled-down "smart" branches, which feature an ATM that accepts cash and check deposits, dispenses money, and can accomplish other teller-like functions. The office is staffed with an employee who can open new accounts, arrange all non-cash transactions and demonstrate how to use its new mobile banking system.

In March, it launched banking applications for the iPhone, iPad, Android-based phones, and BlackBerry.

"We are the first locally with mobile banking," Sheffield said.

The credit union's iPhone application lets users check account balances, transfer money, pay loans, and even graph their spending habits.

The credit union specializes in home and car loans. Like other credit unions and local banks, it moved more quickly than major national banks to help its customers who struggled to pay home mortgages.

"That's in the best interest of everybody, if you can work with the borrower and keep them in their home," Sheffield said. "It reduces our losses, and it's better for the borrower if they can stay in their home."

"We've made it 50 years after starting with a few people in a garage," Sheffield said. "We're still expanding."

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or Nathan.Halverson@pressdemocrat.com.

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