Local Berkshire Currency Celebrates Decade Mark

Aired on WAMC on Monday, September 26, 2016. Listen here. A local currency program in western Massachusetts is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Alice Maggio is the executive director of BerkShares Inc. based in Great Barrington.

“BerkShares are a local currency that have been designed for the Berkshire region,” Maggio said. “They are cash/money that you can spend at 400 participating businesses and you can change your federal dollars into BerkShares at our four participating community banks. Ninety-five cents will get you one BerkShare at the bank.”

Maggio says one reason to use the local currency is to keep money in the regional economy.

“It’s been shown that if you spent your dollar with a retail chain only about 13 cents of that dollar is going to stay in the local economy where you spent it,” she said. “But if you spent a dollar with an independent retailer about 48 cents is going to stay in your local economy. When that money stays in your economy it means that it’s supporting wages, charities and taxes and so therefore your infrastructure and schools.”

The program launched in 2006 with $1 million worth of BerkShares printed. About $140,000 worth is in the economy with the remaining amount in participating banks — Lee Bank, Pittsfield Cooperative Bank, Adams Community Bank and Salisbury Bank and Trust. Maggio says BerkShares can also be exchanged at these banks for federal currency.

“It gives people the security that if they’re taking BerkShares and they need dollars to buy something outside of the region than they can change them back to dollars,” Maggio said. “But because of that exchange rate it’s better if they instead think about a way to spend them in the region.” 

Maggio says food is one of the most popular uses of BerkShares. Bob Climo, owner of Great Barrington Bagel Co., says about 20 percent of his sales utilize the local currency since the business started accepting the notes in 2015.

“The money’s staying in our community and we get to reuse them,” Climo said. “We trade them in at Lee Bank. So I think it’s been a great thing to do in this town.”

Magic Fluke Co. has been accepting BerkShares since it relocated from northwest Connecticut to Sheffield, Massachusetts in 2010. Co-owner Phyllis Webb says the musical instrument store doesn’t see too many local currency notes, but its business model is a prime example of what BerkShares strives to support.

“Fifteen minutes to the south of us in Norfolk, Connecticut they’re making some major parts for us, our necks and so forth,” Webb said. “In Sheffield, we’re using a shop for our spray booth and creating an income in that direction too. We are using a molder in Pittsfield and molders in Connecticut. So we’re part of that cycle of how important it is to shop locally.”

Professional services like the Great Barrington law firm Hellman, Shearn & Arienti even take BerkShares, although they are rarely used there. Catherine Chester, a BerkShares board member and an attorney with the firm, says the idea is to show support for the community effort.

Moreover, Maggio says BerkShares create pride by featuring influential people who are from or have lived in the area on their $1, $5, $10, $20 and $50 bills. W.E.B. DuBois, Herman Melville and Norman Rockwell are among them. Maggio says the BerkShares idea comes from the area’s history of economic experimentation involving value notes specific to delis and farms. With the addition of Adams Community Bank this past summer, BerkShares are available to the public throughout Berkshire County. Maggio, who is also the local currency program director at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, says the organization is expanding upon its programs that look at ways the area can produce items it currently imports and fill the gaps in the local economy through startups.

“Everybody might have ideas for ways to diversify our local economy so how can we grab those ideas, foster them and have people contribute to the success of those businesses?” Maggio said. “So that’s where BerkShares because something larger than just a currency.”