Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s East Milwaukee Street branch lobby buzzed with customer activity on a late Friday afternoon, so much so that several customers waited their turn by taking a pit stop for a cup of hot coffee and a cookie in the building’s lounge.
Janesville resident David Dean, a member of the credit union since it was founded in the mid-1960s, watched a long line of customers—members of the credit union—waiting for a teller. There were several middle-aged people, three sets of young parents with children and a few college-age men and women in exercise gear.
Dean, who retired after 42 years at the former General Motors Janesville assembly plant, didn’t mind the bustle or the wait.
In fact, he waited while a friend he knew chatted with a branch manager. All was good. Dean had a cup of Joe and a sugar cookie.
“There’s really something to be said about being a credit union member here,” Dean said.
He punctuated the comment by hoisting the cookie to his lips.
The lively customer action at Blackhawk is case in point of a national and statewide trend—the rising popularity of the credit union. The Janesville-based union’s assets and its footprint have nearly doubled in Wisconsin since the beginning of the decade.
It’s now a $590-million institution—up from $346 million in 2011. Its 12 branches throughout the southern part of the state serve 51,000 members. That represents a footprint about three times the size of the average state or nationally-chartered credit union, according to records at the National Credit Union Administration.
Blackhawk Community Credit Union has grown so much in recent years that it now ranks among the 15 largest of the approximately 130 credit unions in the state.
For a community credit union, that’s big. But belying that burgeoning size, maybe, is the little things.
At one of its branch offices, the Janesville-based credit union has an electronic marquee telling passersby that the lobby has fresh, hot pumpkin spice coffee. So come on in and try a cup, the sign advertises.
“People come in just for that coffee,” said Lisa Palma, Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s chief experience officer. “And that’s great. As a member of the credit union, you own the credit union. The coffee and the credit union itself is yours.”
Blackhawk Community Credit Union within the next year plans to break ground on a $30 million complex along the riverfront in downtown Janesville. The building will house a new corporate headquarters, a branch office and a legacy center meant to honor the credit union’s founding members—thousands of union auto workers who once staffed the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s growth mirrors a national trend of burgeoning credit union popularity and assets.
Data from the Credit Union National Association shows the number of customers at credit unions nationwide has grown 21 percent since 2012.
During the same six-year period, the average assets per credit union has swelled from $149 million to $259 million—an increase of about 74 percent, according to the credit union association.
Some of that growth has come from consolidation, a national trend as some smaller credit unions and banks seek deals to survive in an era of changing technology and big branch banking networks. Other small financial institutions might choose consolidating because they might not have a clear line of succession to replace aging leaders.
National data show about 1,000 fewer credit unions in the U.S. now than in 2012. Even so, the average credit union still operates four branches (the Wisconsin average is five branches), although some are more sizeable.
Advia Credit Union based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a branch in Janesville, has 29 branches in the Midwest. In the last two years, Advia has opened several new branches, including in Janesville, Elkhorn and Williams Bay. Those branches came as Advia acquired two small banks, Peoples Bank in Elkhorn and Mid-America Bank, formerly named Footville Bank.
Credit unions differ from banks in one major way: They operate as cooperatives owned by members—customers whose use of loans, savings accounts and other products give them a stake in the company.
Credit unions pay their earnings back to members in the form of dividends. Typically, members have voting authority in a credit union’s decisions, and most often credit unions are governed by volunteer board members who are elected.
That’s different from banks, which are run as for-profit businesses and often are governed by paid board members who answer to the banks’ main investors or shareholders. For their involvement, shareholders expect a return on their investments. About 170 banks operate in Wisconsin.
Brett Thompson, the CEO of the Wisconsin Credit Union League, said Wisconsin now has about 3.2 million credit union members. He said that far outpaces national averages, and it’s a high proportion of people here, considering Wisconsin has about 5.7 million residents. Some people are members of more than one credit union or may also work through traditional banks.
Bob Nenno, a spokesman for the state Department of Financial Institutions, said growth in credit unions in Wisconsin has tallied in the double digits so far this year, with net income growth among all 126 state-chartered credit unions jumping 16 percent compared to the first nine months of 2017.
Nenno said perhaps the biggest factor in the growth is the overall improvement in the economy, leading to more people working and more people borrowing money.
Palma said Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s growth the last several years has come alongside an economic recovery.
Emerging mortgage lending in a hot housing market has been a big driver in the credit union’s recent growth, Palma said. But throughout the recovery, her credit union has offered loan programs that help people with past credit problems rebuild their financial lives, she said.
Thompson said Wisconsin, in part because of its largely rural population, has long been a hearth for credit unions, particularly ones with local roots.
“So much of that has come from the fact that the cooperative movement in Wisconsin has been such as strong economic and social component from the time the state was formed in the 1800s.”
Thompson pointed out that many Wisconsin residents still get electricity from electric cooperatives, many shop at food co-ops, and a large share of dairy farmers work through dairy cooperatives.
“The cooperative structure isn’t a secret, here, and the value of it is not a secret. That helps credit unions, which at their core are really just a financial cooperative,” Thompson said.
Thompson said credit unions have come more into vogue in the years following the Great Recession in part because there was a growing class of people who seemed to distrust some large, national banking institutions—particularly ones that had gotten embroiled in scandals in the housing collapse in 2008.
Palma, who once worked for a large, national banking firm, said her credit union has never tried to build a name for itself by pitting itself against the traditional banking sector.
She said Blackhawk has grown in large part through local membership in and around the Janesville area. Membership growth has come as the credit union segued away from serving mostly GM employees.
Now, the credit union has customers across a broad span of age and income demographics with a growing number of baby boomer and millennial customers.
She said her credit union has focused on maintaining and expanding branch locations, even if that bucks a trend toward less brick-and-mortar in an era of digital banking and financial services by phone.
“What’s interesting is we still have lines in our branches,” Palma said. “Lots of people might research their finances online, but they still want to talk come in and talk to someone.”
A Ho-Chunk Nation representative said last week the tribe is hopeful its proposed $405 million casino and resort in the city of Beloit will be approved by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Collin Price, a public relations officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, said the tribe continues planning for a massive development at Interstate 90/39 near Willowbrook and Colley roads even as the federal government considers whether or not to authorize the project.
“We’re going to continue to finalize the plan, the layout and all the design aspects of it,” Price said Friday. “We’re confident that all the information, when looked at collectively, is a good thing for the nation and the community. We haven’t even considered a denial or some circumstances that would stop the project.”
Price’s comments come in advance of the bureau’s public hearing in the city of Beloit on Dec. 11. Price said that hearing is part of the bureau’s economic impact study, which was first published as a draft Nov. 9. Price said the study is the bureau’s final piece of the approval process.
“That will be all the information the bureau needs to make a final decision,” he said.
The bureau’s draft statement surveys the environmental impacts of transferring about 33 acres of the tribe’s land to the federal trust. Overall, the Ho-Chunk Nation is planning the development on 73.5 acres, but only the portion of land used for gaming is being considered for the federal trust.
It is unclear when the bureau could hand down its ruling, Price said. But final approval ultimately will have to come from Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who told the Beloit Daily News in February he would support the project if it is granted federal authorization.
An Evers spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the matter last week.
Officials from the city of Beloit and Rock County have touted the proposal’s likely economic impact. The plan includes a casino with 2,200 slot machines and 50 tables, a 300-room hotel and a 40,000-square-foot indoor waterpark.
An economic impact study by The Innovation Group last November estimated the development could create about 1,500 jobs and generate a labor income of $83.7 million. The impact on the Rock County economy is assessed at $225 million, according to the study, and the county’s sales tax share could be $3 million.
Sales from retail development, which would make up about 175,000 square feet of the project, could generate about $16.4 million for the county.
The city of Beloit and Rock County entered an intergovernmental agreement with the tribe in March 2012 which exempts the Ho-Chunk Nation from property taxes. Instead, the tribe would make yearly payments for services provided, and the city and county would each receive a portion.
In a statement Nov. 9, Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther lauded the nation’s bid and said the city is “thrilled” the bureau is making strides with the casino’s proposal.
“This casino, hotel, convention center and waterpark will surely be an asset to our great community,” Luther said. “The Ho-Chunk Nation has an excellent reputation for running high-quality properties, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with the tribe throughout the duration of this project.”
Donald A. Wuttke
It has been more than a decade since Wisconsin was at the white-hot epicenter of a red-hot presidential race.
But that’s precisely the scenario that looms two years from now.
“I think Wisconsin is going to be one of the most important (battlegrounds), and kind of a bellwether for the rest of the Midwest in the competition for the presidency,” said GOP strategist Keith Gilkes, a longtime adviser to Gov. Scott Walker.
Almost everything about the Nov. 6 mid-term election bolstered Wisconsin’s status as a top presidential target in 2020, when this state has no race for governor or U.S. Senate but can expect an all-out war over its 10 electoral votes.
The state swung back to Democrats for governor and U.S. Senate after Republican Donald Trump carried Wisconsin for president two years ago.
But Democrats failed to dent the GOP’s stranglehold on the state Legislature, and they won the governor’s race by scarcely more than a percentage point.
Taken together, the razor-thin battles for president in 2016 and governor in 2018 have underscored this state’s essentially “swingy” character.
They have also laid bare the limits of each party’s appeal and the challenges both sides face in the Great Lakes battlegrounds that could easily tip the 2020 election.
Tony Evers’ slender victory for governor was a reminder that no matter how well Democrats do in their big “base” cities, their struggles in small towns and rural counties leave them little margin for error.
“There is no group of voters where we can say, ‘We can safely ignore them,’” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who polled for Evers’ winning campaign.
“To state the obvious, a Democrat can’t win (Wisconsin) without doing well in Milwaukee and Madison. But it’s also quite clear you can do well in Milwaukee and Madison and still get killed statewide,” said Mellman, referring to the party’s losses in the recent past.
For Republicans, Walker’s defeat was a reminder that no matter how well the GOP does with rural voters, it can ill afford to lose ground in the suburbs when it’s being blown out in the big cities.
One GOP pollster called the suburbs a national “killing ground” for Republicans in 2018.
“What Trump demonstrated in 2016 is a unique way of winning Wisconsin—driving up the rural vote overall, with an agenda and message that responded to their values and concerns over those of suburban and urban voters,” said Gilkes. “The challenge for Trump is you can’t just exclusively rely on rural voters.”
In 2020, GOP and Democrats can’t afford to ignore the “blue wall.”
The Democrats’ most obvious route to an electoral majority in 2020 is to take back the three “blue wall” states that Trump narrowly flipped in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. That would put Democrats over the top if nothing else on the map changes.
“I think re-assembling the ‘blue wall’ is probably the most viable path for the Democrats,” said University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw in an email exchange.
Shaw, who advised President George W. Bush’s re-election campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said Republicans would love to play offense and pick up a Clinton state such as Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado or Virginia. But the GOP suffered setbacks in all four in 2018.
“The most important battles will be Republicans defending Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Shaw.
Mellman, the Democratic pollster, argued his party has more paths to victory in 2020 than the GOP. One is a southern path that targets Florida and North Carolina. Some Democrats think Arizona and Georgia, longtime red states, are becoming better targets for their party than the familiar battlegrounds of Ohio and Iowa, which Trump won by 8 and 9 points two years ago.
But “there is clearly the northern route of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” said Mellman, who is based in Washington, D.C., and polled for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. All three states regularly voted Democratic for president before Trump.
“If the Democratic candidate travels to them, invests in them, works them, there is every likelihood of winning those states,” said Mellman.
Democratic strategist Tanya Bjork said her party has taken to heart the failure of the Clinton campaign to visit Wisconsin or put much effort into Wisconsin or Michigan in 2016.
“I would expect the Democratic nominee and hopefully the Democratic Party has learned their lesson that you can’t ignore your firewall,” said Bjork, who ran the Clinton effort in Wisconsin and pushed unsuccessfully, she says, for more resources from the national campaign.
“We can’t let that happen again,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based in on Madison.
Wisconsin “is one of the six to eight states that are going to matter,” said Maslin. Both sides understand its significance, he said. “Trump has made a big deal out of how important Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania were to him. He knows it. He has to come back to them.”
As 2020 approaches, a few things stand out about Wisconsin’s place on the map.
First, Wisconsin was the actual “tipping point” state in 2016, to borrow a concept used by the analytical website “538” to identify pivotal battlegrounds. If you ranked all the states from most pro-Trump to most pro-Clinton in their vote, Wisconsin occupied the exact electoral center: its 10 electoral votes were the ones that mathematically tipped the Electoral College to Trump.
Second, the state’s history as a battleground runs deep. The essence of a presidential battleground is that it is very close when the national election is very close. There have been three presidential elections in the past two decades that were decided by small margins in a handful of states (2000, 2004, 1016 2016). Some battlegrounds that were extremely close in 2000 and 2004 were not in 2016 (Iowa, New Mexico). And some states that weren’t competitive in 2000 and 2004 were hotly contested in 2016 (North Carolina).
Wisconsin was decided by less than a percentage point in all three close elections in recent presidential history (it is the only such state).
“Wisconsin is the new Ohio,” said Republican strategist Brad Todd, who is based in northern Virginia and has worked on Wisconsin races. “It has become a state that goes, albeit narrowly, with the party that does better nationally in that election.”
Wisconsin’s demographic makeup is another reason it bears watching. The state has a high proportion of white working-class voters, Trump’s political base. In the 2018 mid-term election, 55 percent of its voters were whites without a college degree, compared with 41 percent nationwide.
That gives Trump every chance to compete for these states again in 2020. White blue-collar and rural voters continued to vote Republican in 2018 (in some places at even higher levels than 2016), even as urban and college-educated voters grew more Democratic.
In states such as Wisconsin, those crosscurrents leave both parties on a knife’s edge.
Take the Walker race.
The outgoing governor lost the big Democratic cities of Milwaukee and Madison by historically huge mid-term margins. His winning margins were smaller than 2014 in the most populous Fox Valley counties (such as Brown and Outagamie), and in his “base” suburban counties outside Milwaukee (such as very Republican Waukesha and Ozaukee).
Compared with 2014, Walker lost ground in the state’s 35 most densely populated counties.
But he gained ground in 16 of the state’s 20 least densely populated counties, and in almost every county across Wisconsin’s northern tier.
“Scott Walker did even better in rural areas than we ever imagined or thought we could,” said Gilkes.
Despite an unfavorable climate for his party this year, Walker’s support in “Trump Country” came just shy of re-electing him.
The lesson of Wisconsin’s recent political history is that both parties pursue a “base-only” strategy at their peril.
The questions on the Republican side start with the southeastern suburban counties (led by Waukesha), where Walker did worse than he did in 2014 but better than Trump did in 2016. The GOP needs to stem its losses with women and college graduates.
Meanwhile, Democrats would like to narrow the gap with rural and blue-collar whites, as Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle did in 2006, President Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin did in her comfortable 2018 re-election.