Mt. Washington banking on Codman Sq.

Officials from Mt. Washington Bank this week detailed their plans for a new branch office in Codman Square that is being hailed as a major investment along a forlorn stretch of Talbot Avenue. The $4 million project began late last month with the demolition of an unsightly and often controversial property that will now make way for a state-of-the art banking facility, the largest of its kind in the Mt. Washington portfolio.

The South Boston-based mutual bank, which has been building a customer base in Dorchester in recent years with branches in Andrew Square and Adams Corner, says that the development of its fifth branch in Codman Square is meant to send a strong signal about its commitment to the neighborhoods of Boston. At a luncheon briefing held on Monday at the Ashmont Grill, Mt. Washington's president and CEO Ed Merritt said that the Talbot Avenue building was the latest step in what is likely to be an aggressive expansion into new sections of the city.

"Our long term focus is to become viewed as Boston's community bank," said Merritt. "We're not interested in going into Quincy or the South Shore or anywhere else. Our focus is going to be on the neighborhoods of Boston. "Right now we are really loving Dorchester," Merritt explained. "And we're looking for further banking opportunities within that footprint. We think this branch firmly establishes our commitment to Dorchester. We're very serious about becoming the dominant bank within Dorchester."

Codman Square leaders who attended to briefing included City Councillor Charles Yancey, representatives of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council and Codman Square Health Center, staff from the Boys and Girls Club on Talbot Ave. and clergy from the Greater Love Tabernacle church.

Yancey applauded the bank's move to invest in the neighborhood west of Washington Street and noted that the property in question was the site of great controversy in the neighborhood four years ago. Neighbors rallied at that time to prevent the Boston Police Department from converting the vacant, city-controlled building into a taxi inspection depot. Yancey was among those who balked at the automotive use and he credited Dept. of Neighborhood Development chief Charlotte Golar Richie, who also attended the briefing, with saving the block for private investment.

The 4,000 square foot bank branch will feature a drive-through teller window and 24-hour ATM service. It will also have a community room, which can be reserved for neighborhood meetings, Merritt said.

Bill Walczak, executive director of the Codman Square Health Center, praised the bank for its willingness to build along the Talbot corridor. The project, he said, was the largest private investment along that side of Talbot Ave. since the Boys and Girls Club was founded near the corner of Blue Hill Avenue in 1996.

Walczak says he thinks there is a great opportunity for "an aggressive, community bank" in Codman Square.

"Even though there are already two banks in Codman Square, a lot of people aren't part of the banking system, "said Walczak, adding that a check-cashing store also does business in the district. "Banking is so important when it comes to building credit and relationships with lenders."

A recent visit to the health center by bank officials, Walczak said, provides ample evidence that Mt. Washington is likely to find new customers ready for their style of community banking: Forty-two members of the health center's staff signed up for accounts, he said.

Shirley Moore, a Melville-Park resident who is a member of Mt. Washington's board of trustees, agrees that the bank is likely to find much of Codman Square and Greater Dorchester fertile ground.

"We now have an opportunity to get close to an institution whose culture is very close to our own here in Dorchester," says Moore. "This is a bank that really wants to know who their customers are. We're not a bank that's looking to grow so that we can be taken to another bank and sold off or going rushing off. We're rushing in. I really think it's going to be a great fit."