Change Comes to Hampden, and Folks Wonder Why

by Alice Cherbonnier

THE CALLER didn't want to leave his name. But he had a question that bothered him enough to call the local newspaper.

"Did you know they're taking out the drive-in ATM machine behind NationsBank?" he asked. "It's going to be closing on November 10. There's a sign up. What I want to know is, why do they have to do that? It's like they're taking away something else that's so good about living in Hampden."

He went on to explain that the ATM, behind the bank branch at 904 West 36th Street, was used by lots of elderly people. "At night it's safer than a walk-up ATM. If there's a problem, you can just drive away."

His sense of loss was not lessened by the knowledge that the bank was installing a new sidewalk ATM machine in front of the building. "Is it a financial thing or something?" he wanted to know about the closing. "City neighborhoods need all the amenities they can get. I hate to see it go."

This change comes hard at the heels of another on The Avenue. One morning recently, Hampdenites woke up to find The New System Bakery closed. Reasons for the closing varied; among them was the belief that the new owner of the bakery did not get as much community support as his predecessors because he "tried new recipes" and things didn't taste the same.

As it turns out, the bakery will be re-opening under the ownership of Sam's Bagels. Its new owners pledge to use the old New System recipes, as well as offer bagels and coffee.

The case of the ATM drive-in, however, may not be as satisfactory to those who have come to rely on its convenience and perceived safety.

Joanne Stevens, public relations manager of NationsBank, said the bank is spending about $30,000 to put an ATM machine in front. "The Hampden branch is doing well," she said. "If it weren't we wouldn't be making improvements to the site."

Moving the ATM machine to the front, she said, "improves maneuverability and parking in back. It's a tight space back there."

The bank branch did not do a formal survey of customer preferences for a drive-up versus walk-up ATM machine. Rather, it was noticed that there was increased foot traffic in the area. "To be competitive, you ned to be where the customers are," she said. "Like other banks nearby, we wanted to offer an ATM that's safe, well-lit and visible."

She acknowledged that the new arrangement "will be convenient for some, and less convenient for others." Those preferring the drive-up machine, for example, might be elderly, or mothers with children, or physically impaired.

NationsBank's closest drive-up ATM is at its Charles Village branch at 3121 St. Paul Street. Ms. Stevens also pointed out that the bank has a drive-in teller available at The Rotunda during normal banking hours.

Most ATM transactions involve getting out cash, according to Ms. Stevens, and for that reason NationsBank has been expanding its network of cash machines inside Royal Farms stores throughout the state, including the Royal Farms store that will soon be opening in the former Goodwill Building at the corner of Roland Avenue and West 36th Street. These simplified machines operate like the cash machines found in grocery stores or at the airport.

"There's been an incredible increase in the use of ATMs," she said. "We've found the biggest motivation is convenience." Asked if banks might be saving money by encouraging customers to use ATMs instead of tellers, Ms. Stevens said actual cost savings between transactions using ATMs and tellers are not that different. "Actually, banks responding to trends," she said. "Branches will never go away totally, but to be competitive you need to be where the customers want you to be."

Some Hampdenites wanted the ATM in back of the bank. But NationsBank is banking on the belief that many more will want to do their transactions on foot in a more public location.

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This story was published on November 5, 1997.