Immigrants Save in Maspeth
by Daniel Bush
Feb 05, 2009 | 4541 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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When recent Polish immigrants arrived in New York City, they moved to Greenpoint. As they neighborhood was flooded with young professionals, driving up real estate prices, many members of the Polish community packed up, crossed Newtown Creek and settled in Maspeth.

Despite the relocation, loyal Polish-born residents trekked back to Greenpoint to deposit their hard earned pay in the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union, the largest ethnic credit union in the country and a community institution at the heart of Polish immigrant life in the city.

Now, Polish-born Maspethians no longer have to make that trip.

In late January, the Polish and Slavic FCU opened a new branch in Maspeth on Grand Avenue at Hamilton Place. The opening of the new branch, which will celebrate an official grand opening on February 21, confirms the established Polish presence in Maspeth, and the credit union's surprising success at a time when other financial institutions have been destroyed, or badly crippled, by the economic recession.

"It's surprising that it took us so long to come here to Maspeth," said Marian Ponanta, the vice president of marketing at the credit union, who, along with the Zbigniew Rogalski, the branch manager, and Martyna Florczak, a communications specialist, gave the Glendale Register a special tour of the new facility "Polish residents have been living in Maspeth for generations."

It took the credit union longer than expected to find a site in Maspeth, Ponanta said, because the institution was determined to wait for a space that would fit their needs. When they finally found a suitable building on Grand Avenue, they couldn't turn it down.

"This is a prime location for Maspeth," said Ponanta. "Anybody that does anything Maspeth comes through here."

The new branch is part of a recent expansion of the credit union just at the time when other banking companies are shrinking.

The Polish and Slavic FCU was founded in 1976 by a group of Polish immigrants to provide the transplanted Polish community with a home-grown organization to minister its finances in a foreign country.

After rooting itself firmly in the fabric of Greenpoint life ("Greenpoint is ours, we rock and roll there," Ponanta said), the credit union began expanding elsewhere in Brooklyn and Queens. Today, the institution has over ten branches in New York and New Jersey serving over 70,000 Polish and Slavic immigrants, the vast majority of whom are Polish.

Credit unions, which offer all of the same financial services as banks, differ from them in two principal ways: credit unions are non-for-profit organizations, and each member has a voting stake in electing- and the right to run for a seat on- the institution's governing board of directors.

The Polish and Slavic FCU in particular has seen such success, said Ponanta, because Polish immigrants have a remarkable propensity to save, are committed to paying off mortgages and other financial obligations swiftly, and reinvest capital in strengthening their communities. (The Polish and Slavic FCU donates to over 100 local organizations each year, and runs a youth scholarship program that will pass the $2 million dollar donation mark in May).

"Polish immigrants hate to be in debt. We're very likely to have conscientious members," said Ponanta. "It's a rare success story that can be attributed to immigrants who came here with nothing and took advantage of the opportunity."

When the recent real estate crisis hit, sending the national economy into recession, said Ponanta, the credit union's unique financial position, and its solid niche market, saved it from collapse.

The institution steered clear of the boom and bust sub prime mortgage market, and avoided the derivatives market entirely. As a result, said Ponanta, the credit union's assets, valued now at least $1.2 billion, actually grew substantially in 2008. "We had our best year ever," Ponanta said. "Credit unions compared to banks in this situation prove to be much safer."

Ponanta is hoping that growth will translate to the Maspeth community, where Polish residents have been waiting for their own credit union for years. "We're hoping to attract people from Maspeth that still consider themselves Polish," said Ponanta. "We're happy that we're able in tough financial times to give back to the community."

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