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Umpqua Bank offers rent-free location while nonprofit waits for permanent home in Rockwood Rising development

PMG PHOTO: STEPHANIE BASALYGA - (R to L) Nita Shah, executive director of Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon, meets with Jennifer Lewis, manager of Umpqua Banks Rockwood branch, and Cobi Lewis, Umpquas director of corporate responsibility, in a space that the bank has offered as a temporary home for Shahs satellite office in the community.Until recently, Nita Shah wasn't sure if the Rockwood satellite office of her nonprofit organization, Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon, would have a home.

For more than a year, the office had been providing mainly refugee and immigrant clients with small business development and financing support out of a building owned by the city of Gresham. The space was slated to undergo a full renovation as part of the Rockwood Rising development, which broke ground at the beginning of the summer.

Shah, who serves as MESO's executive director, went searching for temporary office space. However, when she found limited options in Rockwood, she worried her only option might be to rent several smaller spaces around the community.

Then Umpqua Bank stepped forward with a solution.

At the end of July, MESO opened the doors to its temporary office in a portion of Umpqua's Rockwood location at 10 N.E. 181st St.

"It turned out this was a perfect fit," Shah said. "Even the space, the size is perfect."

In addition to being close to MESO's previous location, the Umpqua Bank building is located on the MAX light-rail line. The space also has its own entrance, allowing the nonprofit to offer evening and weekend classes when the bank is closed. The area is large enough to enable MESO to add new programs and features for clients, according to Shah.

Creating connections

In the past, Umpqua has offered the extra space in its Rockwood building to nonprofit organizations for single-use events, such as educational sessions or large meetings. However, Cobi Lewis, the bank's director of corporate responsibility and a senior vice president, said the longer-term occupancy of MESO's Rockwood office offered a unique opportunity to solve Shah's problem while also creating an essential link between the nonprofit's clients and Umpqua.

Traditionally, most banks have focused their traditional lending services on medium-size and large businesses. As a result, extremely small start-ups and micro-enterprise businesses were often left out of the process. That's where organizations like MESO came into play, tapping connections and a network and proving backing for nontraditional sources of financing.

In the past five years or so, however, banks, in general, have made a considerable shift toward working more closely with nonprofits in order to begin relationship-building efforts when businesses are just starting.

"The whole impetus of it is we want people to be comfortable with bankers and realize they're just people with information that can help you, so that when (you're) ready to transition to a traditional banking relationship, it's something familiar," Jennifer Johnson, store manager for Umpqua's Rockwood branch, said.

Establishing levels of comfort and trust is especially important for MESO's clients, many of whom come to the organization wary of dealing with banks. Some have had bad experiences in their home countries. Others feel overwhelmed by the formality of entering a bank.

"Our clients are more relationship-based," Shah said. "Maybe they have had negative relationships with banks. They have not opened accounts before. They are embarrassed sometimes because they might have very little money to open an account. Plus, it's very private financial information that you're providing somebody. So many reasons."

Umpqua's unique approach to banking, including calling their branches "stores," coupled with the open area that MESO has been provided with, offers a different type of experience, according to Shah.

"For us to be here, where our clients can come freely to us, where we can build those relationships with the banking folks, I see it as a win everywhere," she said.

MESO expects its Rockwood satellite office will remain in the Umpqua location for the next year or so. After that, the nonprofit will move into space in one of the first buildings that will be finished as part of the Rockwood Rising development.

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