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CA considers a credit card for residents Use of Visa may earn association discounts on services, facilities; 'Win-win situation'; Consumer group questions whether card is appropriate


The Columbia Association soon may offer a piece of plastic -- other than recreational membership cards -- that it hopes area residents won't want to leave home without.

For consumers used to juggling credit cards to earn frequent-flier miles, automobile rebates and other side benefits, the nonprofit homeowners association that manages Columbia's amenities is considering offering its own Visa card.

As an incentive, use of the card would earn discounts for CA sports club memberships, pro-shop items, camps, art classes and even Columbia's annual property assessment.

In conjunction with Columbia Bank, the association is surveying Columbia residents to determine the feasibility of the credit card. The CA discounts would be earned by racking up charges on the credit card.

Association officials say such a credit card would benefit cardholders, the bank and the CA, and a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association said the idea seemed to be good for local business.

But the director of a national credit card consumer organization questioned whether the offer would be appropriate for a quasi-governmental institution such as the CA. And Alex Hekimian, a frequent critic of association policies, said he would like to see the agency find ways to reduce rates for recreational facilities rather than offer "another marketing gimmick."

Mr. Hekimian, president of the local watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, said the credit card idea is typical of an organization that offers too much frosting and not enough cake. He said too many Columbia residents already can't afford recreational memberships on top of annual property charges that generally range from $400 to $1,000.

"I think people are tired of being marketed," he said. "Just charge a reasonable price and for get about all this hype and promotion."

Robert Goldman, the association's director of membership services, said the credit card idea "seems like a real win-win situation" and is "completely appropriate."

"It's certainly in line with our mission of getting as many Columbia residents involved in using our facilities and programs as possible, at no charge to us," Mr. Goldman said.

Association treasurer Rafia Siddiqui, who proposed the idea to Columbia Bank, emphasized that the proposal is preliminary and might prove impractical.

But she noted that the concept follows a credit card industry trend toward "co-branding," an arrangement in which a financial institution joins another company, such as an airline, to attract consumers with benefits. For example, airlines offer credit cards allowing consumers to accumulate frequent-flier miles linked to the amount they charge on the card.

"People are interested not only in low interest rates and no annual fee, but in earning other values," said Ms. Siddiqui. "You have to offer more than what the current cards are offering. That's what we're working toward."

Columbia Bank has not determined a ratio of credit card charges to CA discounts or how many card memberships would be necessary to make a CA card feasible, said Jeff B. Harris, vice president of retail banking. The bank would give a share of profits it would make from finance charges to pay the CA for discounts earned by cardholders, Mr. Harris said. "We think it has a lot of merit, being the community bank and having so much synergy with the people who live in Columbia," he said.

But Howard Strong, director of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Credit Card Users of America, sees dangers in the CA's idea.

"Should a quasi-governmental organization be encouraging people to go into debt and use their credit card?" he asked. "Is government providing an imprimatur that going into debt is a good thing, that you're going to help out your city by going into debt?"

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