A tour of Renton’s new “bank of banks”

You can’t open an account at this new bank branch.

  • Saturday, April 12, 2008 12:00am
  • News

Unveiling of a bronze eagle mounted in the lobby of the new Federal Reserve Seattle Brach in Renton.

You can’t open an account at this new bank branch.

I typically keep a low profile when it comes to dedication ceremonies. This time was the exception. I jumped at the chance to cover this event when I learned I would get a tour of the facility’s vault areas. After all, it’s not every day that you get to look around the bank of all banks.

The Federal Reserve Bank officially dedicated its new Seattle Branch on Monday. The ceremony took place at the new high-security building located on Naches Avenue in Renton, just south of Interstate 405.

The first thing that impressed me about this fairly low-key building was the security. As I arrived at the gate I was greeted by Federal Police. After the purpose of my visit was verified, a set of imposing poles made of concrete and steel were lowered into the ground so my vehicle could enter the parking lot. I drove to the designated parking area and gathered my gear. Upon entering the building, I was greeted by more federal police who scanned my gear by X-ray as I walked through a metal detector. I was met by Steven Fisher, a public information officer who signed me in and gave me all of my media information for the tour.

At first glance, the facility seems very comfortable and well designed. I didn’t get a feel for the intense security until we were about to embark on our tour. The first words to the few of us there: “No cameras, no recording devices, no electronic devices.” So, I placed all my electronics and cameras on the table, and we left for our tour. We waited by the surveillance room for our escort, and received a few final words of wisdom: “Please keep your hands out of your pockets.” I don’t think anyone in the tour group was willing to test the police on this one, as I didn’t see a single hand enter a pocket during the entire tour.

After going through a mantrap system — two heavy steel doors with bulletproof glass, only one of which can be opened at a time — we were shown the counting rooms. Video cameras and bulletproof glass are everywhere.

“The new facility has made the entire operation more efficient and, more importantly, much safer,” Fisher said.

Donald Kohn, vice chairman for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, agreed, saying, “Clearly, the safety of our employees and operations is a high priority that has become a greater focus in the post-9/11 era.”

Cash is brought in by armored car, and the pallets of money are put into a room accessible from the outside. Once the armored car personnel have exited, the outer door is closed and the door on the inside is opened for staff to retrieve the cash. The Fed workers then verify the manifest and process the orders.

You have to remember, this is the bank where consumer banks do business. Orders are placed for cash, which is then sent to the Fed, so a huge amount of money changes hands here. That became apparent in the next stage of the tour: the vault.

The vault at the Fed is enormous. It vaguely resembles a Costco warehouse, but is much more high tech. Each crate of cash is barcoded and automatically scanned as it enters the vault. A state-of-the-art robotics system places and picks up the crates. Each one of the crates, (known as carts), holds 420 bundles.

Lily Ruiz, media relations consultant for the Federal Reserve, said that if the bundles are $100 bills, each cart would hold approximately $46 million. The vault holds stacks of carts as far as the eye can see. Approximately $1.1 billion per month is processed at the vault, although Fed officials will not disclose the exact dollar amount held at any given time.

Next is the high-speed processing room. The machines in this room scan and automatically check the quality of 80 to 90 thousand notes per hour, for a total of about 75.5 million notes per month, officials said. The notes that pass the scan are automatically packaged in shrink wrap. Worn or damaged notes are automatically shredded. If the scanner can’t decide, the notes are inspected by hand.

It took several months of logistical planning prior to the move and close down of the old downtown Seattle branch, at 1015 Second Ave. Milt Reimers and Gary Volchok of CB Richard Ellis are handling the sale of that property. The old Seattle branch was closed in mid-February, when the new branch had begun full operation.

The new facility is about 100,000 square feet, and cost about $53 million to build. No tax dollars were used to pay for it — the Fed’s primary annual income comes from interest earned on its portfolio of government securities.

The dedication ceremony was attended by Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco officials, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and Renton Mayor Denis Law.

“The most valuable commodity we have is the trust of the public,” said Janet Yellen, president and chief executive officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

The dedication concluded with the unveiling of a bronze eagle, which had previously been at the Portland branch of the Federal Reserve. It is now mounted in the lobby of the new Seattle regional branch in Renton.

Mark Lowry can be reached at mlowry@reporternewspapers.com or 391-0363, ext. 5056.

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