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Our Local Currency:

Ever since coming back from the Berkshires and encountering the BerkShare currency, I have been thinking about the possibility of introducing a local money system in the Cape Fear region. Re-reading “Your Money or Your Life,” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, has really brought this to the forefront of my mind. (Actually, not only am I re-reading it, but an informal discussion group has grown around it, which has been fascinating.)

Local currencies, barter networks and time banks are all concepts that are discussed in “Your Money or Your Life.” In fact, the book was my introduction to the idea of a barter network. Since, I have belonged to two in different cities during the sojourn of my late adolescence into the world outside Wilmington.

A local currency or “script” is issued by a region, not a government, which is used by the businesses and populace of that region to keep money flowing. It has been popular in times of economic strife. In the 1930s, scripts were used in the USA; the BerkShare of the Berkshire area of Massachusetts has succeeded and has been quite popular since 2006. So far over 2.7 million BerkShares have been issued, spent and re-spent.

Up the road from us in Chapel Hill, another local currency is used. Known as the NC Plenty, member Liz Gilson Aaron says, “The Plenty is money that is dedicated to being spent locally. It’s good for people who are tempted to not [spend locally], but want to commit it here.”

As is the case when one has “a good idea,” I fixed my mind on a very specific image of what would need to happen to launch a local currency in Wilmington. A nonprofit organization would need to be founded, as well as a governing board, a bank deposit account opened, someone would have to canvass businesses to get them to sign on to the idea, and then manage and update all the lists. The formation to-do list goes on and on and on. These were all part of the modus operandi of the barter networks I belonged to before. Both were networks that issued Barter Bucks to be spent in percentage at the participating businesses—or a direct barter of a service could be arranged. The NC Plenty allows businesses to decide if they will accept 100 percent payment in Plenty or a smaller percentage.

Our Riverfront Farmers’ Market already adapts this idea by selling wooden tokens with the market logo on one side and dollar value on the opposite. Folks can pay for their goods at the vendors with these tokens on Saturday mornings. It’s a brilliant idea for today’s society who uses plastic more than ever. Hence, locals can purchase them with a credit card. All vendors accept them, and cash them out to the handsome and charming RT Jones, the city liaison with the market.

Gazing down at the tokens one day, I realized I would be prepared to accept these as payment at my own place of business—because I could spend them at the farmers’ market every Saturday morning. (In theory, I get paid by my business, right?) They have a value. If that is the case, then, was I not in effect already holding a local currency, one that our city recognizes? Is this a hyper-simplification or over-rationalization?

From “Local Currencies: Catalysts for Sustainable Regional Economies” by Robert Swann and Susan Witt: “In the town of Exeter, New Hampshire, the economist Ralph Borsodi and Robert Swann issued a currency that was based on a standard of value using 30 different commodities in an index similar to the Dow Jones Average. It was called the Constant because, unlike the national currency, it would hold its value over time.

“The Constant circulated in Exeter for more than a year, proving, as Borsodi had hoped, that people would use currency which was not the familiar greenback. At the time, it received national publicity in Time, Forbes and other magazines. When asked by a reporter if his currency was legal, Borsodi suggested that the reporter check with the Treasury Department, which the reporter did. He was told, ‘We don’t care if he issues pine cones, as long as it is exchangeable for dollars so that transactions can be recorded for tax purposes.’ This is all that the government requires of a local currency, and all that a local currency requires of a community is trust. A currency is only as strong as the confidence that people have in one another to produce something of value.”

Our farmers’ market tokens are a local currency;  it would be great if other businesses or individuals would begin accepting them, too. We don’t know if we don’t ask. For some, myself included, part of the allure of it is that it’s money dedicated to being spent here. It cannot leak from the system. It’s elegant, simple, already in place, and people and businesses can opt in any time they want to: no sign-ups, no standards of practice, just acknowledging the value of the currency and spending it.

I had hoped in a few years that a local micro-credit lending program could be started, too. They have been very successful in other areas with local currency programs (and without).  If the nonprofit and governing board were in place, it would be an easy next step.  For now, I am thrilled to realize this opportunity in front of us and revel in the possibility that these little wooden discs hold.

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