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Plenty of Something 

Local currency buys what's missing at corporate malls: community

If Wal-Mart's still standing in spite of your boycott, the IMF is still screwing developing countries in spite of your protests, and CEOs are still denying their role in raiding your retirement account, here's a better idea: Keep your money where you can see it. Know the people you're doing business with. And keep your community strong, no matter what happens to the rest of the country.

Those are the aims of "local currency," a kind of "scrip" that is purchased with real dollars and circulated--exactly like real money--among participating users. It's legal--having met all criteria for legal tender as defined by the IRS, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. It's pro-community, because it can only be used locally. And it works: In my hometown of Ithaca, N.Y, "Ithaca Hours" currency has been in use since 1991; today, more than 2,000 participants circulate $85,000 of the stuff. In California, "Berkeley Bread" has been in circulation since 1997; today, 300 participants keep $20,000 moving inside their community. In fact, local currencies are flourishing in nearly 200 communities nationwide.

In the Triangle, a group of North Carolinians are anticipating similar success with a local currency dubbed "Plenty" (Piedmont Local EcoNomy Tender). The currency is meant to supplement, not to replace, U.S. dollars, and comes in three denominations: One Plenty equals $10; 1/2 Plenty equals $5; and 1/4 Plenty equals $2.50. Each colorful Plenty note "celebrates the Piedmont's culture and natural beauty," (trees, barns, birds) while bearing the slogan, "In Each Other We Trust."

The success of Plenty depends on the active participation of members, who in reality are casting a vote for their local economies through their use of the currency. If you take a portion of your salary in Plenty, for example, you're making a whole slew of promises--that you won't move out of the area; that you trust local businesses will be around to accept them; that you won't send your money into the maw of a remote, unaccountable corporation or Internet site; and that you're willing to meet at least some of your needs locally.

The goal of N.C. Plenty Inc. (www.ncplenty.org), the Chapel Hill nonprofit group launching the initiative, is to get 100 participants (ideally 55 individuals, 35 storefront businesses, and 10 farmers) in place by this fall; to generate at least 250 new members per year over the next four years; and to grow from an initial "offering" of $5,000 worth of local currency to $30,000 over that four-year span. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and parts of the City of Durham will be the first areas to be solicited.

To participate, you fill out a membership form, pay a $12 membership fee (or do an equivalent amount of volunteer work for the group), and agree to accept Plentys as full or partial payment for goods and services (you can even take a small part of your salary in Plentys). Each participant trades in $50 in cash for $50 in local currency until the initial $5,000 offering is used up.

N.C. Plenty reports that they already have more than 55 members on board ready to offer services including home computer consulting, database development, Web design, functional stoneware pottery, Myers Briggs personality typing, music for parties, translation, homemade bread, yoga lessons, massage therapy and instruction, personal training services, watercolors, homemade greeting cards, homemade children's items, math tutoring, computer software development, preschool education, ecological inventories, landscaping with native plants, small group art instruction, handmade soap, editing, copywriting, birth doula services, computer repair, SAT/GRE tutoring, dairy and/or gluten-free baked goods, part-time childcare, buttons/cards/flyers made to order, and decadent desserts. In coming weeks, they hope to sign up more traditional "storefront" businesses.

The Triangle communities where that initial offering will take place compare favorably with the Ithaca/Berkeley communities on which they are modeled. While both of those cities have had net population declines since 1990, Chapel Hill/Carrboro had population growth of 28 percent. Ithaca, with half the population of Chapel Hill/Carrboro, had only one-third the gross retail sales--$254 million (2001 figures) versus $828 million (2000 figures).

While the Triangle has the population base and the sales activity to suggest a fertile ground for local currency, the question is whether businesses and workers, undoubtedly skittish of late with the economy's prospects, are willing to take a long-term stand in their communities instead of blowing town for potentially brighter prospects. And that's where a kind of chicken-and-egg mentality comes into play. To be sure, Plenty doesn't create more jobs or invent more money. Its benefits are more psychological: the presence of community money suggests the presence of a community; a sense of community is what moors people to a particular place; and by staying in one place and participating, they create more community.

Mark Marcoplos, who's run Marcoplos Construction in Orange County for 15 years, has already signed on as a Plenty member. "Efforts like this really help strengthen local communities," he says. "And it's the kind of strengthening we need in the face of an economy that is run basically by and for large corporations."

Tom Wills, a contractor with Lewisburg-based Solar Consultants, agrees.

"I like supporting local projects that build community by bringing people in touch with each other," he says. But he also thinks that his business--mostly solar water heaters and space heaters--will benefit from the creatively inclined customers attracted to local currency. "We're a fairly small niche of the building industry," he explains, "so it's always a challenge for us to make people aware that we're out there. It's good for us to have a self-selected group of people who are interested in alternatives."

"I think it's a good idea when the community can offer what they do, and what they make, for the greater good," says Shannon Hartzell-Jordan, who serves as N.C. Plenty's treasurer and chair of its finance committee. She will accept Plentys for her handmade soap business, Usopia, and has "great expectations" for the local currency. "It will have a big impact on environmental issues--when you aren't transporting things, and you aren't importing things, then the environment always benefits."

In North Carolina, local currency may be an idea whose time has come. As stocks continue to tumble, wealth continues to concentrate at the top, and wages race to the bottom against distant competition, we may discover that--to paraphrase Dorothy--the security and sense of community we seek may be found in our own backyards. And in each other.

"In the future, if we're ever going to thrive as a society, we're going to have to find ways to take economic power back from the large corporations," Marcoplos says. "And this is one way that definitely contributes." EndBlock

More by David Potorti

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