How a Community Business Center Made Tongass FCU the Focal Point of Town

Imagine if credit unions not only supported current community needs but also became the focal point where people came together to discuss, conduct, and plan the local business and social needs of tomorrow. That’s exactly what Tongass Federal Credit Union has done with its community business and resource center, “The Commons.

Based in Ketchikan, Alaska, the credit union offers a place to foster collaboration, education, and new ideas in a comfortable, affordable, and shared working environment. At The Commons, entrepreneurs, small-business owners, and start-ups can co-work in an open space or rent private or semi-private workspaces when needed. TFCU even partnered with a local coffee shop to operate in The Commons to help make it a place where people want to be.

To learn more about how The Commons came to be and how it has proven to be a win-win for TFCU and the community, Gowest Credit Union Association reached out to the President and CEO of TFCU Helen Mickel, and AVP of Marketing & Community Development of TFCU Katherine Tatsuda.

Q: Why did Tongass Federal Credit Union decide to create The Commons?

A: Over the last several years, TFCU has been increasing MBL lending in our service areas. Our focus has been on small and micro-businesses — many that could benefit from technical assistance. Our CEO had a vision for providing a business development and resource center at TFCU. A place where microbusinesses, small business owners and solopreneurs could meet and collaborate, share workspace, and so much more.

TFCU owns a large building next to our main office where we have our loan center and adjoining rental space. When the former renter vacated the space in late 2019, the TFCU Board of Directors approved the concept of The Commons at TFCU.

We did a remodel of the space in 2020. Three offices were built and a coffee shop corner was added. We left a large open space, or common area, for seating — including tables, a comfortable couch, chairs, and fireplace — and three semi-private workspaces. A large screen TV was incorporated and is used for marketing and for presentations and Zoom meetings.

We then began adding partnerships. The first was with a local restaurant owner who opened a new coffee shop space in The Commons coffee shop corner, called Pilothouse Coffee. They are an anchor tenant renting only the corner and back-room prep space. The large common area may be used by their customers, but TFCU retains control to do events in the space, while Pilothouse employees keep the common area clean.

With three offices, we invited a non-profit economic development organization to use one of the spaces for a monthly rental. The other two offices are used as hourly, daily, or weekly rentals. They get used for a variety of things — small office staff meetings, client meetings for small business owners who mostly work from home, therapist appointments, and much more.

Out the back door of The Commons, we have partnered with the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition on a community garden, and they use a small space inside for their free seed vault and educational materials.

We have partnered with the Ketchikan Arts and Humanities Council on an art wall where local artists display and sell their work. There is a quarterly change of art on the wall, managed by the arts council.

Finally, our most important partnerships are with the small and micro businesses that use the space for education and business growth. To support small businesses, we sponsor four summer farmers’ markets, winter indoor Saturday markets, and periodic pop-up shops.

In the winter we also present Business Power Hour workshops and webinars. That covers topics that support small businesses, including many areas of interest like marketing tips, tax time tips, leadership training, business planning, and more.

Q: How has The Commons impacted the local community?

A: The Commons at TFCU opened in December 2020. In the last year and a half, we have welcomed 176 attendees to 18 Business Power Hour webinars and workshops (an average of about 10 attendees per workshop). Thirty-five vendor spaces have been used at a total of five farmers’ markets. Forty vendor spaces have been used for pop-up shops and Saturday markets.

A business book club was hosted last winter for the first time with a small group of five including one who joined via Zoom. The club will now be an annual event held during the winter months.

Rental offices and semi-private spaces have been used for a variety of purposes from training to client meetings.

The start-up business, Pilothouse Coffee, is thriving serving the entrepreneurs, micro-businesses, and small businesses using the space. Their partnership brings an extra warmth and welcome to the space.

The partnership with Ketchikan Wellness Coalition’s Community Garden program provides over 20 garden beds in The Commons garden. This is a community project that helps to teach people how to garden in a cool rainforest.

The Commons has become the go-to meeting place for local organizations and individuals to have informal and formal meetings. First City Rotary often uses the space for its weekly meetings. The space is used informally by various community groups including youth groups, church groups, consultants, coffee with cop events, and much more.

Q: For other credit unions who are inspired and want to do something similar for their community, can you share what steps you took to make this business center a possibility?

A: There are many factors that play to the success of The Commons. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a place where people want to gather that is conveniently located and easy to get in and out of.

The partnership with Pilothouse Coffee is important. They are a draw for people to stop by The Commons and they keep everyone caffeinated and fed while working.

A wide variety of programming to support local businesses is also essential. At The Commons we provide opportunities for businesses to learn and grow through our free educational events and Saturday farmers’ markets. The markets are popular with the entire community and draw attention to all the work we are doing to support and grow local businesses.

It is essential to have a strong individual in charge of programming who understands the wants and needs of the community, knows how to host relevant and meaningful events, and can market them effectively.

Finally, the right community partnerships are essential in creating a space that is meaningful and provides real value to the people you are serving.

The credit union said community feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Here are a couple of testimonials from frequent visitors of The Commons.

“I look forward to Business Power Hour! The topics are relevant and engaging, and I always learn something new. Katherine is an amazing presenter as she keeps the audience entertained and smiling when facilitating group dialogue. I have very much enjoyed hearing from local business owners as they share their personal experiences growing their businesses – wins, losses, and knowledge gathered along the way. Experience is a powerful teacher, and experience shared is a valuable gift to others. I am grateful to live in a community where we are committed to learning and growing together.”

–Gracia O’Connell

“My name is Coatlicue and I am a small-business owner here in Ketchikan, Alaska. Being invited to the book club for female small business owners by Katherine Tatsuda was incredibly refreshing and rewarding. We met every Thursday evening for a couple of months and analyzed the book “Profit First” by Mike Michalowicz. We each gave our personal views and provided commentary. The book was great, and the fellow female small business owners were awesome. However, I must confess that what stood out the most for me was Katherine’s unique and magical approach to leading the conversation. A bundle of joy and empathy, Katherine always makes sure each of us feels heard and is able to always connect with everyone’s point of view, giving everyone a sense of ease. With years of experience in the field, Katherine Tatsuda is, in my opinion, the ideal leader for any small business owners’ book club in town, and I always look forward to her next one! Highly recommended!”

–Coatlicue Toledo, CEO and Founder at Glow Spa Company

Learn more about The Commons here.




Posted in Community Impact, CU Difference, Top Headlines.