Greening An Urban Core

Greening An Urban Core

Valley Green

Some aspiring entrepreneurs fear they can’t, so they don’t.

Others fear they can’t, but they find Valley Green Bank, and together they can. They do. They blossom and grow. And then they pay it forward.

The proof can be heard in the loud buzz of activity rippling all over the Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill sections of Northwest Philadelphia, in movie-legend Rocky’s gritty South Philly neighborhoods, and along the scenic Delaware River waterfront.

The High Point Cafe coffee shop on Mount Airy’s Carpenter Lane percolates with laughter, clattering dishes, and animated conversation, as diners hover over handmade pastries and made-to-order espressos.

Nearby, Weavers Way Co-op stocks and sells fresh meats, cheeses and locally grown produce. Fragrant with fresh-picked freshness, it too is alive with friendly people and bustling commerce.

In contrast, the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House echoes with silence. But the fact that it attracts admirers from near and far to worship and to witness its Skyscape, a unique light exhibit by the world-renowned artist James Turrell, is a triumph in itself.

The common ingredient in each entity’s scaling-all-boundaries saga is Valley Green Bank, which, in its brief nine-year life, has emerged as the Miracle-Gro for one of the most ethnically diverse and most highly educated regions in the entire nation.

While “giving back to the community” is the concrete footer upon which all community banks build, Valley Green’s community service footprint is more on the scale of Fairmont Park’s Belmont Mansion than a cozy Manayunk row home.

Despite its founding only two years before the 2008 collapse, Valley Green has sprouted to become one of the fastest growing banks in the greater Philadelphia area. In a dazzling emerald green achievement, it was ranked in SNL Financial’s 100 best-performing community banks with less than $500 million in assets in 2013.

Founder Jay R. Goldstein, who also serves as CEO, President, and a member of the Board of Directors, has lived in this fast-paced urban community for 20 years. He lives, eats and sleeps the “buy local, build local, sell local” mantra that inspired the co-op and the ripple-effect regional renaissance.

A graduate of American University and Washington College of Law, Goldstein traveled to Valley Green via a very non-traditional path, believing you don’t need formal banking experience to be a banker who invests in the community. He already had a wealth of community experience, and a law degree to boot.

Before dipping his toe–and then his heart and soul–into banking, Goldstein learned the art of the deal as a partner in the Philadelphia-based law firm of Kleinbard, Bell, and Brecker, LLP, specializing in mergers and acquisitions, and public and private finance.

This knowledge serves him well today, as Vice Chair of Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a successor to the Penns Landing Corporation, whose goal is to transform the Delaware River waterfront into a vibrant destination for recreational, commercial and cultural activity.

Goldstein realized that as bank mergers and acquisitions occurred at a dizzying rate in the early 2000s, the newly formed banks might be bigger, but they were decidedly not better. They were failing to fulfill the basic needs of their customers. As president of the local community development corporation at the time, he saw first-hand that the banks’ failures in service were hurting the rest of the passengers on their shared economic ship.

To fill the void, other financial institutions began eyeing the area for a possible entrance, but they wanted guarantees on the level of loan activity they would generate and a site on which to build a new building.

Goldstein believes banks should be built not solely on promises and cold, hard numerical calculations, but on business relationships. He decided, if we are not getting good service, let’s offer it ourselves.

“We believe you build an institution not necessarily on bricks and mortar, but, instead, on relationships,” he stated.

The seeds were planted.

Valley Green Bank was chartered in November 2005, and began operations formally on January 1, 2006.

Their local shareholders draw upon a “who’s who” of Philadelphia elite, all highly respected home-grown leaders, representing a broad cross-section of the community, including many women entrepreneurs.

The Valley Green name was landed upon in a bit of serendipity when Goldstein and his wife laced through Fairmount Park on their bikes. They bantered about possible names for the bank. Then Goldstein’s wife asked simply, “Well, where are we now?”

Goldstein replied, “Valley Green,” which is a section of Fairmount Park hugging the historic Valley Green Inn.

Eureka!

Since then, “Green” has come to stand for not only money, but “environmentally friendly,” “recently born,” and “growing like wildflowers.”

Even after the financial crisis darkened their doorsteps and deposits two years later, their portfolio never ran into problems, Goldstein said. They continued to lend to the region that shaped them–home of loaded cheesesteaks, the iconic Ed Rendell, and the beloved “Iggles.” They were, in turn, shaping the city back.

The one-of-a-kind bank has a one-of-a-kind service area, not only in its racial diversity but in its high education level. Its location, adjacent to the largest urban park in America, Fairmount Park, is also extraordinary. The majority of the region’s housing stock is more than 100 years old, and made of solid, aged stone with stunning architectural and historic details.

Many young urban professionals want to call the area home, with many living in the city and working in the suburbs, an out-migration which is the mirror-opposite of most cities.

Flying in the face of national trends, for seven years in a row, the population in the area has grown, especially among the lucrative market of tech-savvy, consumer-driven 21- to 35-year old set. Many live in the city and work outside the city limits.

Goldstein is a passionate spokesman for the “shop local, buy local, grow local” philosophy. He not only talks the talk; he walks the walk; plans the plans; and connects the connections. The “local first” slogan, which inspired not only Weavers Way Co-op, infuses Valley Green Bank’s own forward-thinking business strategy.

Goldstein views the co-op on the corner as the “cornerstone of redevelopment in this area.”

Valley Green holds the mortgage on the co-op’s expanded new property and several in the surrounding area. When the owners said they wanted to expand, Goldstein gave them “advice and counsel on where and how to expand and what their financing should look like.”

“In the current marketplace a community bank has to be so much more than a financier. They have to be a catalyst, proactively working to promote positive community growth. Today, you not only have to loan the money, but often times you have to guide the business plans in order to transform your community and business prospects. Clearly, Valley Green understands and excels at this model,” said PACB President Nick DiFrancesco.

In order to expand from their original location, Weaver’s Way Co-op needed the capital to acquire real estate and build out the property. They also needed a healthy shot of grant money and looked to Valley Green for assistance. Being “green” themselves in the area of grant-writing, co-op principals counted on Goldstein’s vast network of contacts and relationships and ultimately secured both the grant money and their dreams. Goldstein was able to approach even non-traditional outlets and negotiate sites.

The Valley Green garden continues its growth spurt.

Last June, Mayor Michael Nutter cut the ribbon on a South Philadelphia branch of Valley Green Bank, its third branch. Other branches operate in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, along with two commercial lending offices. The South Philly branch operates in the shadow of the legendary Pat’s CheeseSteaks, Geno’s Steaks, and the fabled stadiums of the powerhouse Philly sports teams.

As evidence of their listing in the top 100 banks, since 2005, Valley Green Bank has struck gold, bringing in $275 million in deposits and 7,000 customers.

Their success is contagious.

Meg Hagele, owner of High Point Café, opened her bustling coffee shop nine years ago. She lived in Seattle for a time, which she jokes, is “extremely cliché,” she knows, but she grew up in this neighborhood. She reminisces aloud about the dry cleaners and boarded-up buildings once there when she was a young girl.

Today, her coffee shop knocks the caffeine out of the gargantuan coffee franchises.

With Valley Green Bank’s support, the cafe is now expanding into wholesale production of their own signature baked goods and launching a coffee roasting operation in Mount Airy. Their new production and office headquarters at Germantown Avenue will supply restaurants, retail stores, and coffee shops throughout the greater Delaware Valley.

“It’s all about quality. It’s all about service,” Hagele said. “It’s all about community.”

Goldstein noted that, “We not only help our customers. We help our customers’ customers.”

Hagele believes people are getting away from the “big-box stores” in favor of walking somewhere close by and supporting their own community, even if in a small way.

Hagele is hailed as a “natural-born marketer” who provides benefits for even her part-time workers, donates coffee to many community events and nonprofits, and even pours the steaming cups of Joe herself.

Weavers Way has a similar “community-first” brand.

When the co-op was first formed in the 1970s, it was more about saving money through bulk purchasing, said the general manager, Glenn Bergman.

Before the dawn of the tofu revolution and the organics craze, the co-op started out in a church as a buying club.

When they wanted to expand, they approached Goldstein and said, “We can’t do this.” But “he figured out a way to do it.”

The co-op now has 5,200 owners. Seeing the rows of Passover and Easter specialties lined up in Weavers Way, from potato latkes and matzo ball soup to spiral hams and glazed carrots with apples, the member-owned grocery store, created in 1973, remains a premier source of local, organic and wholesome foods.

In addition to the customers, Bergman considers the employees the big winners in the co-op. The employees make $10 an hour starting wage, which will soon jump to $10.50. They offer health insurance, provide a 401(k) match and match the city’s contribution to real estate in the area through a first-time homebuyers program.

The co-op had $19 million in sales and more than $300,000 to $400,000 in profits last year, which is returned in part to members based on their purchasing ratio, and in bonuses to employees.

While most cuts of fresh meat in the area hail from the Midwest and West, and suffer from highly publicized recalls and slaughterhouse issues, that has never been a problem here. Most of the meat comes from the Penn State area, and it is all “Buy Fresh. Buy Local.”

The co-op even partners with a local high school to teach gardening, nutrition and healthy eating. The co-op owns six acres of farmland, making it the largest commercial grower in Philadelphia. It sells juicy apples from local orchards and “microgreens” from city gardens.

Another happy notch in Valley Green’s tree trunk is The Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House, with Quaker roots that date back to the colonial era. When religious leaders wanted to expand the existing meeting house, members had pledges but little cash on hand. Because Valley Green knew the pledge-makers and “the significance” of the place of worship to the community, they made the loan.

The most awe-inducing feature of the house for both Quakers and members of the general public alike is a breathtaking skyscape designed by internationally renowned artist James Turrell, a Quaker with a worldwide following who donated his genius to the group.

The meeting place has a retractable ceiling that is opened to the night sky, morphing into vibrant colors at both sunset and sunrise in a living art exhibit.

Valley Green even helped with fundraising for the project, which the groups dubbed a “mystifying” visual illusion, bordered on two sides by the urban oasis of Fairmount Park. One ardent Turrell devotee even chipped in $1.5 million to bring the stunner to Philadelphia.

The color-drenched exhibit draws thousands of spectators each week and allows the Quaker membership to use the meeting house for more than a few hours a week on Sundays.

Meeting house leaders came to Valley Green Bank after severing a long-standing relationship with another Philadelphia financial institution. In spite of a business association that endured for decades, religious leaders decided to search for a “more environmentally friendly bank.” They realized they needed to find a bank where “we we’re not just a number.”

Meeting House Treasurer, Daniel B. Evans, said they immediately found Valley Green to be “flexible,” “cooperative” and “a good fit all around.” And the mutual admiration continues.

Plus, “they watch your back better,” Evans said. He recounted an instance when he had mistakenly deposited funds into the wrong account. Instead of charging him a steep punitive fee, bank officials called him, kindly questioned him on his error, and allowed him to correct it. No fees involved.

The bank also supports the nonprofit Friends of Wissahickon group, which helps to maintain the natural beauty of the area and to educate the public on sustainability and other important topics.

Goldstein’s work on the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation also reveals his Midas touch. Before, a series of attempts to rejuvenate that waterfront corridor—the largest undeveloped stretch of riverfront property in the nation—failed in a string of politically embarrassing flops.

The Race Street Pier broke that trend. It was done by the same landscape architect who designed the breathtaking High Line in New York, an elevated park on the west side of Manhattan.

In another revitalization closer to home, the Valley Green bank headquarters was once an A&P grocery store that was born in the 1940s but became obsolete by the 70s. The supermarket site then transitioned to a tire store before sitting vacant for 10 years. When the bank opened its doors, the hydraulic lifts that remained had to be removed, and the garage bays were converted to soaring windows.

With new-found tire traction, the building became a “catalyst for commercial development along the corridor,” Goldstein said.

Twenty years ago, 70 percent of the neighboring buildings were vacant. Today, there is an impressive 90 percent to 95 percent occupancy rate.

In nine years, the bank underwent two expansions, built of course by local architects and local construction crews. They created a hot spot sporting a “city flavor with a suburban feel.”

Even the bank’s advertising reflects the local emphasis. Their print ads focus on a different business that is a customer each week–a coveted spot that businesses are lining up to be featured in.

Ronald B. Geib, President and CEO of Harleysville Savings Bank, said, “The strength of their financials reflects the strong execution of a solid business plan. Not only do their financial results exceed most of their peers for being a de novo bank, but they are also on the top of the list in comparison with all banks of all sizes.”

The “shop local” theme is as prominent as your teenage daughter’s iPhone. Local residents are fiercely loyal to the coffee shop, co-op and bank. No big box stores or giant impersonal cookie-cutter franchises for them.

But the bank’s board of directors operates under “no illusions,” said Goldstein: profit is still a part of the “going green” movement. It’s simple math: the more profit they make, the more they can give back to the community.