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How does a bank make a community a better place to live? Loura Gilbert explains.

When most people think of banking, loans and checking and savings accounts immediately come to mind. And while Commerce Bank has more than 150 years of experience in those areas, making the communities where the bank operates a better place to live and work is also part of the bank’s mission as a financial institution.

Commerce supports regional economic development by advocating for the addition of more affordable housing for low- to moderate-income residents, helping entrepreneurs start and grow businesses and enabling nonprofits to do the essential work to fill unmet needs.

Loura Gilbert, vice president of community development, explains how Commerce works to improve the communities it serves and why that work matters to area residents.

Why does Commerce Bank focus on community improvement?

Loura Gilbert: We feel that community and economic development are the same. Investments are good for our communities and our company. They help communities stabilize and Commerce to grow.

How does Commerce participate in community development?

LG: We approach it from multiple fronts. First, our employees volunteer their time and expertise. We have more than 450 people on various boards and committees of organizations across our footprint that are important for the health of our communities. Next, financial support of nonprofit organizations assists the community, particularly when focused on affordable housing. Third, we support other nonprofits that provide expertise in the form of technical assistance to entrepreneurs or that provide loans and grants for start-ups.

What is the link between affordable housing and community development?

LG: Everyone says what we need to combat poverty is good jobs or education, but there’s a lot to be said for stable housing. If your family has safe, affordable housing, you have an address to put on a job application, your kids stay in the same school instead of moving around and you know where you’re going home at night — it’s just a really positive impact on the whole family. Decent, safe, affordable housing ought to be available to everyone, but it isn’t. Housing is really at the core of stabilizing the whole community.

You mentioned helping to grow businesses. How does Commerce do that?

LG: In addition to making Small Business Administration loans, for many years we have been working with the Small Business Development Centers, which provide training and expertise for many years. We make a habit of referring people to those centers when they aren’t quite ready for traditional bank financing. The SBDCs help entrepreneurs with formal business plans, projections, market analysis, evaluation of the competition and how to come to a bank and present their plan to ask for a loan. We also provide our lenders to public economic development organizations’ loan committees to help them decide if small businesses will get loans.

Are there community development efforts that you are particularly proud of?

LG: In St. Louis, InvestSTL is one. After the events in Ferguson, MO in 2014, the St. Louis area realized it needed to do things a different way. Some national philanthropic organizations wanted to come in and help, but there was not a place for them to plug in. Several local organizations began talking about setting up a new framework to work on neighborhood capacity building and overall neighborhood plans that could be adopted by the city or county and be a roadmap for banks and others to buy into. InvestSTL is housed at the St. Louis Community Foundation and. John Kemper, Commerce’s president and CEO and I are on the board.

What type of work has InvestSTL been doing?

LG: InvestSTL has raised over $4 million, mostly from banks like ours, to fund projects in two neighborhoods: Dutchtown/Gravois Park/Benton Park West and the West End neighborhood, east of the Loop. We will be picking a third neighborhood down the line. InvestSTL pledged $300,000 over three years to each neighborhood to help them plan improvements for their specific needs. Rise Community Development is our technical assistance provider for this capacity-building three-year plan. InvestSTL also may be looking at creating a loan pool to lend to organizations that don’t meet conventional lending requirements or could provide forgivable loans or guarantees.

What’s the best way to go about community development?

LG: The thing about community development is its hard work. It takes time. If you do it right, you have to do it from the ground up. You have to have people in the neighborhoods tell you what they want and then create a plan to get those things off the ground.

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