As someone who grew up in the Springfield area, attended Western New England University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has over 30 years of experience in the credit union and banking industries, I am truly optimistic about the future of business in Western Massachusetts.
Regionally, the unemployment rates in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties have all dropped over the past year. As of October, the unemployment rate in Hampden County was 3.6 percent, down from 6.0 percent in October 2015. Likewise, the unemployment rate in Hampshire County dropped to 2.3 percent from 3.8 percent the previous year, and the rate in Franklin County was 2.3 percent, down from 4.0 percent in 2015. With more residents working and consumer confidence increasing, I hope many area consumers will shop locally, which would be great news for the regional economy.
In Hampden County, there are a few major initiatives that make the future very bright for the region. In particular, the restoration of Springfield's Union Station and the construction of the MGM Springfield casino, along with the thousands of jobs associated with the project, hold a lot promise for the residents in Springfield and the surrounding communities.
Several months ago, Springfield made national news when CNBC listed the city as one of 10 cities across the United States with rising business opportunities. They cited the casino project, the 300 jobs associated with the CRRC rail car manufacturing plant, and the fact that Springfield has a robust cadre of small businesses. CNBC also mentioned that three quarters of the businesses in Springfield have fewer than four employees, and, from my perspective, that fact alone translates to an abundance of opportunity for smaller lenders, such as Freedom Credit Union.
The outlook for Freedom Credit Union remains bright, as well. At Freedom, we continue to see an increase in new members, in part, due to the continued consolidation in the local banking industry.
Over the past two years, there have been at least five bank mergers up and down the Pioneer Valley. One of the results of those mergers is that Freedom is now the largest financial institution headquartered in Springfield.
This consolidation of community banks gives us the opportunity to serve individual and business members better because every business decision at Freedom Credit Union is local, and always has been. For example, our credit committee consists of four volunteer members of the board of directors, two loan officers and myself. We see every loan application that comes into the credit union, and we work collaboratively to grant as many loans as we feasibly can.
Since I became Freedom's president and CEO in January 2016, our total loan growth as of Nov. 30 was 3.0 percent higher than in January. Over the same timeframe, our member business loan portfolio grew an impressive 29 percent! Last summer, we also received good news about our mortgage loan market share in the Pioneer Valley. Combining the mortgage figures from Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, we were the eighth ranked financial institution overall and the third ranked lender with headquarters in Western Massachusetts.
I also see plenty of opportunity in terms of technology in the financial services industry. Like many institutions, Freedom offers our members the ability to open accounts and apply for loans and mortgages online. We also offer our membership the ability to deposit checks remotely from a smartphone through our mobile and online banking platform. In 2017, we will offer our business members the ability to electronically deposit higher volumes of checks and provide free wi-fi in our 10 branches.
To our membership, I want to thank every individual and business member for the opportunity to be your president. Every one of our 27,500 members is an equal owner in Freedom Credit Union, and your commitment to us does not go unnoticed. That is why we offer our members very competitive rates on their savings, money market accounts and certificates, as well as all types of loans including first mortgages, home equity loans, automobile and motorcycle loans, educational loans, and member business loans.
Throughout this column, you may have noticed that I used the word "opportunity" a total of five times. That is not by accident. I truly believe that the outlook for business in the Pioneer Valley is bright and that business opportunities exist from Greenfield to Northampton
This article was originally published in the Sunday Republican on February 12, 2017.