A renovated church in an inner-city neighborhood isn't exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find a full-service bank -- even for a day.
But yesterday, one of the nation's newest and largest banks set up shop downtown in the old Orchard Street Church, the new headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League. For just a day, dozens of NationsBank employees, dressed in white polo shirts with red insignia, took applications for consumer loans, credit cards and small business loans.
In addition, they offered workshops on home mortgages and car financing and even provided free credit reports that typically cost $25.
While banks are often perceived as either ignoring or "red-lining" low-income city neighborhoods, NationsBank says it's trying to reverse that image by making loans there.
"We wanted to bring our resources and knowledge to the community and break down any barriers to understand why people in low-income communities don't look to banks for their financing needs," said Mark D. Swancy, a senior vice president for NationsBank. "We do feel there are good loans to make in this community."
"Our branch system is restrictive in the city and not convenient for everyone," said Molly Olbrich, a spokeswoman for the bank. "But this is not a one-time stop. We'll be back."
NationsBank is the fourth-largest bank holding company in the UnitedStates, operating in nine states. While it is the largest in the metropolitan Washington area, NationsBank has only three branches in Baltimore.
But the Charlotte, N.C.-based company could become a much bigger player in Baltimore's banking market in the next few years. The company has a five-year option to acquire MNC Financial Inc., parent of Maryland National Bank, the largest in the state. Most observers expect NationsBank will exercise its option by September.
Before the day was over, several hundred people filed into the old church on Orchard Street just east of Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Valerie James asked NationsBank to loan her a few thousand dollars to start a beauty salon in the Mondawmin area, while Shondette Cruse applied for her first home mortgage.
"I didn't even know where to go," said Ms. Cruse, a 23-year-old telecommunications worker, who learned she needed another $3,000 toward a down payment on the rancher she wants to buy in Baltimore County. "At least they were here for me to get some information."
Gus Simpson, owner of Maryland Respiratory Care, a small West Baltimore business that supplies oxygen to homebound patients, came seeking a loan to expand his business. The 50-year-old businessman sayshis request for a loan to purchase new equipment has been turned down several times by other Baltimore banks.
Mr. Simpson said he had heard about NationsBank's pledge to (( help small businesses and minority interests when the company was formed last December by the merger of NCNB Corp. and C&S Sovran Corp.
"The real question is what do they do? And do they understand small businesses?" he said.
Mr. Simpson left NationsBank an application for a $100,000 loan.
Ms. Olbrich said NationsBank would conduct a similar community loan day in Prince George's and Montgomery counties before returning to Baltimore next summer. Earlier this year, the bank said, more than 300 people attended a community loan day in Anacostia, one of Washington's poorest areas. That effort resulted in about $100,000 in loans being made, the bank said.