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Can the Buck Stop Here?: Supporting the Local Economy
Burlington - It's all about the benjamins. But for the past 18 months or so, consumers have been less willing to part with their hard-earned cash, whether that greenback has a picture of George Washington or Ben Franklin.
As national economies have stalled, so has the global economy. Americans have seen the housing markets slump, car manufacturers crash, and banks begging for bailouts.
But some forward thinking people in Berkshire County prepared for this several years ago, resulting in a local currency that has been purchased more than two million times.
Members of the E.F. Schumacher Society, named for the late Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, economist and author of "Small is Beautiful," believe as he did - the most resilient economy is one where goods and services are created for the community - rather than depending on many of those same goods and services to be transported in.
Susan Witt, co-founder of Berkshares, Inc., said communities should look for a "resilient diversified economy that provides jobs and keeps skills in the region."
One of the society's goals is to research and develop ways citizens can shape the local economy.
"We're not thinking it's the responsibility of government to solve that problem," she said, adding she agrees with policies that support production.
One of the tools citizens can use to support their local economy, said Witt, is creating and using local currency.
"If you look at the 1800s and early 1900s, every commercial bank issued its own currency," she said. "That means every region had available to it the amount of credit needed and appropriate for that region.
"We just gave it up for the convenience of a national currency," she added. "What had been a local development tool stood in the corner unused."
In an effort to keep dollars in the region, Berkshares, a non-profit, began issuing its own currency, which are sold in denominations of one, five, 10, 20 and 50 dollars.
Since 2006, said Witt proudly, $2.5 million federal dollars have been exchanged for Berkshare bucks and about $150,000 Berkshares are in circulation at any one time.
More importantly, she added, there is nothing illegal about creating local currency. While there is a prohibition against local coinage, the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit local paper currency.
"Local currencies must have an exchange rate with federal dollars so the transaction can be recorded in federal dollars for tax purposes," explained Witt. "If you earned $500 in Berkshares, you must report $500 in federal dollars."
There is a discount for consumers at the initial exchange; $95 in federal currency will buy $100 in Berkshares.
Businesses will convert Berkshares to federal dollars to pay bills and the initial 5 percent discount is accounted as an expense similar to a credit card fee, Witt explained.
The program has been well received, Witt said, because global manufacturing has left the United States vulnerable.
"There's a growing understanding that our infatuation with the global economy has not done us well," she added. "Berkshares are seen as a positive way to take action, rather than complaining and wringing our hands, it gives us the chance to solve the problem."
Shop first in Arlington
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce initiated a program encouraging residents to shop locally with Shop Arlington First, which began in 2004.
Since its inception, more than $104,000 in gift certificates has been sold and more than $70,000 have been redeemed.
Mike Buglio, a member of the chamber's board, said there have been efforts in the past few months to improve the program,
"We're looking to increase the number of merchants who are willing to accept the certificates," he said, adding approximately 75 Arlington businesses participate in the program.
Originally, businesses had to be chamber members and pay an additional fee to be part of the program. Now, Buglio said, it's looking to change that so any Arlington business can participate.
The gift certificates, he added, are live bank checks underwritten by Leader Bank.
Shop Arlington doesn't ask businesses to sell the Chamber's certificates instead of their own, but rather, asks them to accept the certificates for sale transactions.
"Because it's a live check drawn on an account with money in it, it's better than a personal check, because it's from the bank, and it's better than the credit card because there's no fee," said Buglio
Another advantage, he added, is the certificates are often used by customers who may not have shopped at a particular store.
The certificates can be bought at each of Leader Banks' branches and Balich 5 &10 in Arlington Heights, where Leader does not have a branch bank.
Support Burlington businesses
James Murphy, executive director of the Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce, likes the idea of keeping spending local.
"I think everybody is in favor of that," he said. "In this economy, it's important for the community to support local businesses."
The chamber, he said, is looking into the idea of a discount program among its members to help get them through the current downturn.
Burlington Town Manager Bob Mercier called the idea "intriguing," adding it would be interesting to see how much is spent locally.
"It could be a chamber initiative. A good portion of their members are local businesses," he said. "I'm sure they'd like to retain dollars in Burlington."
Some stores already track where money comes from when they ask for zip codes during checkout, he explained.
"That would be an interesting exercise for a town like Burlington," he said. "This is a very active community and a lot of cash exchanges go on."
Michael Scola, owner of the Fish House & Grille at 184 Cambridge St., agreed with Mercier, saying it's important to keep dollars in Burlington.
"It would guarantee people spending money in Burlington instead of surrounding communities," he said. "I think it will benefit the people in Burlington because they are more apt to spending local as well."
Because residents could get a small discount if a program similar to Berkshares Inc., is available, they would be more apt to spending their money locally as well.
"If people can save money they will," said Scola.