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Black-owned banks get major assist from Atlanta Hawks

Leadership Atlanta 2020 classmates Ashley Bell and Thad Sheely participated in the "Project Light" march on June 20, 2020 (Special: Conn Jackson and Project Light)

By Maria Saporta

In a first-of-its-kind transaction, the Atlanta Hawks will refinance a $35 million construction loan for its Emory Sports Medicine Complex with a ground-breaking syndicate with Black-owned banks.

It’s the first time a professional sports franchise has had a significant loan underwritten exclusively by Black banks. The syndicate includes 12 Black-owned banks that are part of the newly-formed National Black Bank Foundation.

Leadership Atlanta 2020 classmates Ashley Bell and Thad Sheely participated in the “Project Light” march on June 20, 2020 (Special: Conn Jackson and Project Light)

“No one Black bank could do the deal on its own,” explained Ashley Bell, a partner with Dentons, who is a co-founder and general counsel of the National Black Bank Foundation. “They have never come together to do a transaction together before now.”

Twenty years ago, there were more than 50 Black-owned banks in the country. Now there are only 18. “A lot of them got wiped out by the Great Recession,” said Bell, who added that the Foundation is working to keep Black-owned banks from disappearing from the national financial landscape.

Georgia-based Carver State Bank based in Savannah is the syndicate’s lead bank. Individually, the Black banks would not have been able to do the Atlanta Hawks deal. But through the syndicate, the Black banks can compete with money center banks for commercial loans.

“Today’s announcement reflects our commitment to putting our values into action – by choosing to work with Black banks and drawing attention to the need for Black banks to thrive as they work toward addressing the lack of access to capital in Black communities,” said Tony Ressler, the principal owner of the Atlanta Hawks, in a statement.

How the idea came together is a classic Atlanta story.

Ashley Bell

Before joining Dentons, Bell served as regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. He was in the 2020 Leadership Atlanta class, where he got to know fellow classmate Thad Sheely, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Hawks.

Class members created an entity – Project Light – to work on passing hate crime legislation and to promote greater racial equity. After the tragic killing of George Floyd, Project Light held a march on June 20th. During the march, Sheely and Bell started talking about what they could do to bridge the racial equity gap.

“I asked Ashley how we could help support black financial institutions,” Sheely said. “Ashley had the idea, and he introduced us to the right folks led by Carver Bank. It makes a lot of great business sense, but more importantly, it has an impact on the community. That’s the genius and the relationship that Ashley brought to bear.”

The National Black Bank Foundation, announced a month ago, has a $250 million fund, which will allow Black banks to make $2.5 million in new loans. That will enable Black banks to compete with major financial institutions for future business.

“Any corporation in America that chooses to bank Black now has a viable option to do so,” Bell said in an interview. “We want to do more of these transactions. It really is going to call to question corporations in this country who want to close the racial equity gap.”

The National Black Bank Foundation now plans to reach out to the owners of National Football League teams and National Basketball Association teams to see if it can help serve their financial needs.

Thad Sheely

The Hawks, however, set the stage with the refinancing of its 90,000-square-foot Emory Sports Medicine Complex in Brookhaven. It contains the official training and practice facility of the Hawks, the hub of Emory Healthcare’s Sports Medicine program and Sports Science and Research division and the Peak Performance Project. The complex was completed in the Fall 2017.

“We always strive to ask ourselves how the Hawks can best help those in the community that are already helping others, and today’s announcement is another step in our commitment to use the Hawks as a positive agent of change,” Ressler said. “This is both good for the community and good business to empower new and existing Black businesses.”

Bell put it another way. “”Because of the Hawks’ leadership and commitment to financial inclusion, Black banks are finally playing in the major league,” he said.

The Foundation’s board will be looking for new opportunities. It includes:

  • Tishaura Jones, who is chair and serves as treasurer of the city of St. Louis;
  • Ryan Clark, an analyst of ESPN formerly with the Pittsburgh Steelers;
  • Robert James II, president-elect of the National Bankers Association who works at Carver State Bank in Savannah as director of strategic initiatives;
  • Lauren McCann, vice president of Stand Together, an organization founded by businessman Charles Koch;
  • Hill Harper, an author and actor who starred in nine seasons of CSI; and
  • Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, who also was part of the Leadership Atlanta 2020 class.

“If it wasn’t for Project Light from our Leadership Atlanta class and that post George Floyd march and having those conversations on how we can bridge the racial divide, this may not have come about,” Bell said.

Tony Ressler and Keisha Lance Bottoms

Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at ribbon-cutting of new community court in early 2019 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Sheely agreed.

“This is a testament to how Leadership Atlanta creates these opportunities,” Sheely said, adding that Ressler deserves much of the credit. “He challenges us to think about ways to support the community in ways we haven’t done before. And he gives support to initiatives that become a leading force for change.”

Carver State Bank led the syndicate of Black banks, which also included Carver Federal Savings Bank, Citizens Savings Bank, Citizens Trust Banks, Commonwealth National Bank, Industrial Bank, Liberty Bank & Trust, M&F Bank, and Optus Bank.

“People will be able to bank Black at any time or any place if they so choose,” Bell said. “We have to be intentional, and we are going to have to be willing to bank with Black financial institutions.”

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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