Credit union leaders to gather locally

Bistate convention set for three days at Hilton in Vancouver

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Members of a trade association for Oregon and Washington credit unions will gather this week in Vancouver for their annual meeting, with events scheduled Tuesday through Thursday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

The Northwest Credit Union Association convention is expected to draw about 800 credit union leaders and trade show vendors to the city, said Lynn Heider, the organization's vice president for public relations and communications. The association was formed two years ago through a merger of the Oregon and Washington trade associations. It represents 164 credit unions, including 101 in Washington.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the Senate banking committee, will speak at Thursday's session. Credit union leaders will also participate in an auction as part of the "Credit Unions for Kids" program, which has raised more than $100 million for children's charities since 1996. The program was founded in 1986 by a small group of Oregon and Southwest Washington credit unions to help cover health care costs for children at Portland's Doernbecher Children's Hospital before going national a decade later.

The gathering comes at a time of strength for credit unions, which operate under entirely different rules from banks that are their rivals for customers. Credit unions are structured as not-for-profit, member-owned financial institutions, so they do not face the same pressures as banks in terms of generating high returns for Wall Street investors. While they offer many of the same services as banks, credit unions face some legal limitations on their financial offerings and they lack the deep financial pockets and broad geographic scope of regional and national banks.

A public backlash against Wall Street and the banking industry has given a boost to credit unions, Heider said. Nationally, credit unions added 1.4 million new members in 2011 and collectively they have passed the $1 trillion milestone in assets, she said. In the Vancouver area, covering most of Clark County, credit unions report more than 156,000 members, she added.

The association has now settled into its merger of the two state organizations and is "on solid footing working as one organization," Heider said. "The credit union environment in the Northwest is excellent, and it's something that credit unions around the country sometimes envy."