The bankers tramped across the fresh sod in front of the $300,000 house built by a black developer in a black neighborhood.
"This is an eye-opener for me," one said. "I didn't know there were houses down here that big."
The bankers covered a lot of unfamiliar turf Wednesday as Bank South took 20 of its managers on a bus tour to introduce them to Atlanta's Southside. The two-hour tour began a daylong Bank South workshop to discuss ways to improve banking services on the Southside in response to recent articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The articles disclosed that banks and savings and loans make proportionately fewer home loans in black areas than in white areas and make other services less accessible on the Southside.
"We hope to become familiar with areas that we didn't know that well before," said Bucky Kimsey, a senior vice president and chairman of the Bank South task force.
Following road maps and a guide from the Chamber of Commerce, the bankers, most of them white, sampled the diversity of the area both inside and outside the southern Perimeter.
Inside the Perimeter, they saw gigantic houses in Guilford Forest and nightclubs on Campbellton Road, growing industrial parks and renovated Victorian homes, check-cashing stores and a former Bank South branch turned liquor store.
"I've been trying to tell bankers about the Southside for years," said the tour guide, Franklin F. O'Neal, a black businessman and Southside specialist for the chamber.
"There's a perception that the Southside is poor black and redneck. It is that, but it is more than that. What was Gwinnett County if it wasn't redneck? Gun racks and the whole thing. It's changed because somebody made an investment there," O'Neal said.
A few of the bankers knew their way around the Southside, but most were unfamiliar with the area.
As the bus rolled along, they asked many questions: "How much do these houses cost? Who's financing that development? What is this area called? Are we inside the Perimeter or outside?"
On Campbellton Road, one banker pointed out, "There are a lot of vacant businesses along here."
O'Neal said nothing, but later commented to a reporter, "There's a lot of vacancies 'cause nobody's making loans."
One mile later, one banker said, "We used to have a branch up here, didn't we?" The building is now a liquor store.
The bankers also saw stores that cash checks for fees in areas where bank branches have dwindled. And they passed another former Bank South branch on Old National Highway, now with only an automatic teller machine.
Bank South was cited among other banks in the newspaper articles for having closed branches in black and integrated areas, for keeping branches in white areas open longer hours, and for making few Small Business Administration loans to racial minorities and women.
The Bank South task force will offer to upper management within 30 days "ways for the bank to serve the entire community better, particularly minority and low-to moderate-income areas," said bank spokesman Bo Spalding.
Issues under review include mortgage lending, commercial lending, branch locations, hours and many other topics, officials said.
"We're looking at delivery of all services," Kimsey said.
Bank South is one of nine lenders contributing to a $20 million pool for home loans at low-interest rates, mostly in minority neighborhoods on the Southside.
But Bank South is the largest bank that has not announced a mortgage loan program of its own or any changes in access to services.
Citizens and Southern Bank, First Atlanta Bank and Trust Company Bank have announced $45 million in low-interest home loans and increased hours at some Southside branches. Each has started taking home-loan applications at those branches, increased contacts with real estate agents in black areas and advertising in minority media.
"This task force will try to come up with meaningful, long-term solutions in response to the articles, not something quick and splashy," Spalding said.
After their tour, the bankers lunched privately with two black state senators from the Southside, Arthur Langford of Fulton County and Eugene Walker of DeKalb County.
Walker said he was not especially critical of Bank South.
"Bank South does not have a high visibility in south DeKalb County, but having a branch is not the most important thing to me," Walker said. "I would like them to make their money available in south DeKalb, to establish a commercial banker for small and minority businesses, to bring some pressure to bear on appraisers to look more to the land than the color of the people."
Langford asked the bankers to put more blacks on their board of directors and in important jobs.
Walker said, "They are taking initiative on their own to really see firsthand what the problems are. I think that that's positive."Go to the next article or back to the Color of Money index or Power Reporting
Reprinted with permission from The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. Further reproduction, retransmission or distribution of these materials without the prior written consent of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, and any copyright holder identified in the material's copyright notice, is prohibited.
Please send comments and story ideas to Bill Dedman, Bill@PowerReporting.com
Home page: Power Reporting