Columbia Savings & Loan plans new facility

Columbia Savings & Loan Association plans to become the first minority-owned financial institution in Milwaukee to build a new facility for itself.
Milwaukee historian John Gurda said he does not know of any other minority-owned financial institutions that have built their own facilities. Previously, African American-owned banks in Milwaukee have occupied buildings originally built by someone else, said Wisconsin Black Historical Society executive director Clayborn Benson.
Established in 1924, Columbia was the state’s first African American-owned financial institution, Benson said.
Currently located at 2000 W. Fond du Lac Ave., Columbia Savings & Loan is acquiring the rest of the triangle-shaped property bounded by Fond du Lac Avenue, North Avenue and North 20th Street. The firm owns a 2,400-square-foot two-story building at the N. 20th Street and Fond du Lac Avenue corner of the triangle.
Columbia is buying 11,400 square feet of land at the Fond du Lac Avenue and North Avenue corner from the City of Milwaukee. In addition, the firm is working to finalize deals for a few privately owned lots in the triangle, said Columbia president George E. Gary.
Columbia plans to build a two-story, 10,000-square-foot facility, including the basement, on the land it is purchasing from the city. The project will cost about $1.5 million, Gary said.
"I really want to make this happen," he said. "We want to become a full-service institution. We want to bring more financial services to the community, and to do that, we need more people and space."
Columbia provides savings accounts, certificates of deposit, home mortgages and some commercial real estate loans. Home loans account for about 85 percent of the firm’s revenue, Gary said.
The savings and loan plans to add checking accounts, consumer loans and business loans, Gary said.
The firm also plans to add 10 additional employees over a five-year period to provide the new services. Currently, Columbia has eight employees.
Construction of the new facility is expected to begin in April and be completed by the end of 2005, Gary said.
Columbia plans to begin offering checking accounts to its customers on a small scale before the new facility is completed.
"Right now, we want to concentrate on getting our checking accounts up and running," Gary said. "I’m going to try to get that started before we move into the new building, rather than waiting to start it until after we open. Then, when we move, we will have experience and good working knowledge."
Columbia still plans to keep its current building and use it for storage and other services after the new one is opened, Gary said.
The new facility will include three drive-up lanes and a drive-up ATM lane, amenities the current facility does not offer.
The project also will add about 35 to 40 parking spaces between the new and old buildings.
The company’s current parking lot, which Columbia owns, may be developed eventually, Gary said.
The institution also is considering a name change to reflect the additional services. Savings and loans were not allowed to offer checking accounts until the late 1970s, and some customers may assume Columbia does not offer that service, even after it is added, Gary said. Therefore, the institution may become a savings bank, he said.
"We have to give that some more thought," he said. "I don’t think we ever want to give up the ‘savings’ in the name. We like being one of the largest thrifts in the state."
Columbia has not made final selections of an architect or a general contractor for the project.
Some contamination must be removed from the building site. Columbia and the city are applying for a $75,000 brownfield cleanup grant from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. The property Columbia is buying from the city was once the site of a King Furniture store. The contamination is from fill that was placed in the ground after that building was demolished.
Columbia Savings & Loan has $19.5 million in assets. The firm had $4.5 million in assets in 1974.
"Our growth has been slow," Gary said. "We don’t go after the big jumbo deposits like some banks do."
That may change as the institution continues to grow, he said. Columbia had its best year for net income in 2002, with $179,270. Net income dropped to $80,753 last year, largely because Columbia purchased $60,000 to $70,000 in new computer equipment, Gary said.
This year, Columbia’s net income already is at about $150,000.
"This year, we are far ahead of our projections," Gary said.
Columbia’s success and longevity is a result of a long-standing commitment to customer service, which has resulted in repeat business and word-of-mouth promotion, Gary said.
The support of the savings and loan’s customers has helped the firm survive through difficult economic times.
"Columbia is an institution that survived the Great Depression," he said. "When we were faced with double-digit inflation in the 70s and 80s, Columbia sailed through with a profit every year except for one. In the 1990s, our profits started to exceed $100,000.
"We like to think we did a good job because we got repeat business that helped us grow. They came back, and they recommended us to other people. I think over the years we have developed a very loyal customer base. Our customers come from all over the city," Gary said.
Columbia moved to its current location in 1958 after construction of Interstate 43 forced the firm to leave its previous location at North 8th Street and North Avenue.
When the firm moved in, the neighborhood was a thriving business area. However, the neighborhood later declined, especially after a Sears store left what is now the Milwaukee Mall building at North and Fond du Lac avenues.
The area has improved some in recent years. Columbia Savings & Loan has helped by providing loans for some of the homes built in the area, continuing a mission from the firm’s beginning.
Ardie and Wilbur Halyard founded the savings and loan 80 years ago to provide home loans for the city’s African American residents.
Now Columbia is planning another significant contribution to the community by adding more financial services and more jobs.
The firm strives to help improve the lives of its customers, Gary said.
"We want to continue to encourage the residents of this community to save and invest to build a future for themselves and their families," he said.
Info box:
Columbia Savings & Loan Association
Founded: 1924
Location: 2000 W. Fond du Lac Ave., Milwaukee
Assets: $19.5 million
Year-to-date net income: $150,000
Number of employees: 8
October 1, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

Steve Jagler, former BizTimes Milwaukee editor.

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