Chase’s new Cherry Hill branch Manager Christopher Forgenie. Although the branch has only been opened for one month, customers from the community are already expressing their gratitude for financial help in a community once considered a “bank desert. (Courtesy Photos)

By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO

Recently, JPMorgan Chase Bank celebrated the grand opening of its first branch in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill community.

The celebration comes one month after the branch’s soft opening and marks the end of the community’s status as a banking desert.

Histories vary, but there is a general agreement that Cherry Hill has never had a local bank since the community was first designed to house Black veterans returning from World War II and the Korean War. It’s been a lifetime, at least. 75 years.

The branch opening comes at a time where banks, nationally, are retreating from Black and Latino communities as more and more wealthier and Whiter clientele do their banking business online.

Obviously, in-person banking is unavoidably taking a hit like all other retailers and vendors as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

The festivities branch’s unveiling were held simultaneously at Cherry Hill Town Center, Chase headquarters and the Baltimore Zoo’s Penguin Coast Habitat, all connected via Zoom. Attendees at the zoo included AFRO Publisher and CEO Frances “Toni” Draper, JPMorgan Chase Marketing Director Elana Thornton, President Alumnae of Delta Sigma Theta Arlene Wongus, Vice President of Economic Development at Johns Hopkins University and Health System Alicia Wilson, BGE Senior Vice President of Governmental and Internal Affairs Rodney Oddoye and NBA great Kevin Garnett.

“Baltimore has always been a core market for JPMorgan Chase,” Alfonso Guzman, regional director for Greater Washington and Baltimore at JPMorgan Chase and leader of the Mid-Atlantic branch expansion. “And a few years ago, when we decided to start planning our branch expansion in the Mid-Atlantic, we wanted to make sure that we’re going to support as many people, and as many communities as possible. It gives us a tremendous amount of pride, to say that Cherry Hill’s days of being a banking desert are officially over.”

Also attending via Zoom was Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase.

“We must use this moment as a catalyzing event for rebuilding the economy.” Dimon said. “That means helping our customers, who the community shares, in an inclusive recovery to rebuild and come back stronger.”

“We’ve got the right partners,” Mr. Dimon said of Cherry Hill Development Corporation, Catholic Charities and Johns Hopkins.

Chase plans to open 20 more branches and 40 more ATMs in the Baltimore area, and 70 more branches in the DMV.

“I care deeply about Baltimore, and anyone who wants to partner with Baltimore, to make it thrive, is really important to me,” Alicia Wilson, vice president for Economic Development, Johns Hopkins University and Health System told the AFRO. “JP Morgan Chase, from the moment I met them, about three years ago, they’re just true supporters of the community, and really want to lift the community through partnership, rather than through philanthropy, so that’s really appealing to me.”

“All of our communities have value and have richness and have a contribution, and I’m glad that JP Morgan Chase is able to see what others maybe have not been able to see, which is that Cherry Hill is a community of opportunity.” Wilson said.

Also in attendance was Arlene Wongus, president of Delta Sigma Theta’s Baltimore alumnae chapter.

“Delta has a five-point programmatic thrust, and one of the five points of that thrust is economic development, so we’re talking about financial literacy, and all of the things discussed today, it really aligns with Delta’s national plan.” Ms. Wongus told the AFRO. “So, at the local level, we’re doing different programmatic things to raise financial literacy in our community. So, putting this bank in Cherry Hill and trying to fill that void in a financial desert, I think is so inspirational, so inspirational. There’s a lot of energy behind it and excitement.”

The town center broke ground in March 2020 and Guzman was there in attendance. Catholic Charities’ years-long $5 million renovation project is scheduled to conclude Summer 2021. In addition to a bank, plans will create community space, and a food market conveniently located near a library and senior center.

Cherry Hill is also situated in a food desert.

During the AFRO’s visit, a surveyor is taking measurements and photos of the town center’s facade on behalf of Catholic Charities.

“Catholic Charities in stages,” Chris Forgenie, manager of the Chase Cherry Hill branch told the AFRO. “Right now, they’re working on curb appeal, and then, this weekend, they’re gonna work on the storefronts.”

While a little drab from the outside, the branch offers a very open, relaxed, boutique retail experience. Bright lights, lounge and lots of gleaming glass and steel.

Mr. Forgenie is the man making it all happen. The son of Trinidadian and Jaimaican immigrants, Mr. Forgenie, 32, has lived in the Baltimore area for 14 years.

“I was born in a community very similar to this, in Brooklyn, N.Y. My mom, who was a single mom, eventually moved to Jersey City, and I grew up in Jersey City.” Forgenie said. “Cherry Hill had the most public housing. It was over 1,700 public housing units. So, this highly condensed area of public housing, throughout the years, has no bank, no supermarket, nothing. This was a complete bank desert.”

“The most exciting part is seeing how excited the clients are,” Forgenie said. “Especially when you sit down with them, and you set a goal, and you see them reach that goal.”

It’s hard to measure Chase’s success in Baltimore, one month in. SEC filings and reportings are still a quarter away. And Chase’s customer information is by its nature necessarily private. But Forgenie keeps a letter in his desk from a customer that he helped. The customer and Chase asked that she remain anonymous.

“I tell you your bank manager, Chris, took really good care of me,” the letter reads. “I am a new customer at your bank. Chris went over and beyond his duty. He was kind, understanding, patient and caring. I hope my grandson grows up to shine like Christopher Forgenie.”