Community Currency Gaining Visability

The Times-Standard - Donna Tam - With the continuously bleak predictions for our nation's economy, a group of local consumers is urging the community to invest in itself through paper currency that can only be used in Humboldt County.

The Humboldt Exchange Community Currency Project, a volunteer-run group promoting the use of community currency in exchange for local services, produces the colorful bills, featuring local images created by local artists.

”The overall idea is not to displace U.S. currency, just to offer an alternative currency to meet people's needs,” said Jon Zaglin, the project's business outreach coordinator.

Although Humboldt exchange has been around for about four years, it saw a jump in participation about a year ago, Zaglin said. The group publishes a bi-monthly directory listing of businesses that accept community currency, or CC. That directory has grown from about 20 businesses to around 70, with about half a dozen new businesses joining every month, he said. There are currently $130,000 in CC bills -- which are printed with organic ink on hemp paper -- circulating in the local economy. The bills come in denominations of ones, fives, 10s, 20s and 50s.

The significant growth in the project is coming at a time when the nation's economy is faltering, Zaglin said, adding that the CC project strengthens the local economy by keeping the exchange of wealth -- goods and services -- in the neighborhood.

Kathy Curtis, along with her husband, Brad, owns Parasol Arts in Fortuna. The paint-your-own-pottery business has been on the directory for about one year.

”It's a great concept, it's a great program, we're happy to be involved in it,” Curtis said. “As a local merchant with a family, it's a wonderful way to support each other.”

Although Curtis said the business had to go from accepting 100 percent CC on all purchases to 25 percent on all paint-your-own-pottery purchases, she is still a staunch supporter of the program.

”Until more businesses get involved, we just had a little more than we could process,” she said, adding she would like to be able to use CC toward everyday services or goods, such as utilities and groceries.

Zaglin said one of the goals for Humboldt exchange is to engage businesses that are connected to each other through goods and services, such as a local wholesaler who sells to local retail stores, in order to increase the diversity of involved businesses.

Talia Rose, owner and operator of Organic Grace in Garberville, said the currency is less frequently used in Southern Humboldt, but she thinks it is picking up steam.

”I think people are starting to talk about it more and I think as more businesses get involved, it will appeal to more people,” she said.

The company, which sells organic mattresses and other eco-friendly products, has been on the directory for about six months, and accepts $100 CC each month on a first-come, first-served basis. Since she signed up for the directory, she has had one customer who used CC, and another who came in to use U.S. currency to buy CC bills as Christmas presents.

”It's really beautiful local currency,” Rose said.

Zaglin said the organization has been trying to promote the use of CC through community events, such as a May Day event at Big Pete's Pizza which accepted 100 percent CC for beer and pizza for the day, and through a monthly pancake breakfast.

Having businesses like Big Pete's Pizza in Arcata, Accident Gallery in Eureka, or Arcata's Muddy's Hot Cup -- one of the original businesses to sign up for the program -- creates greater visibility for the currency and encourages more people to use CC, Zaglin said.

”Any currency only holds value because people agree that it does, and the more that you can use the dollars, the more people will see the value in it,” he said.

Zaglin cites successful programs across the country, such as the BerkShares program in western Massachusetts or Ithaca Hours, one of the oldest community currency programs in the country. While the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from coining their own currency, it does not have a stance on local paper money. The courts have allowed private groups to print complementary currency, provided it does not compete with federal money and does not circulate beyond a limited area. Other states with similar programs include New York, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Many of these currencies are called “hours,” because the only thing we have in common is time, Zaglin said. He added that local currency promotes community building, and can serve as a launching pad for conversations about the state of the U.S. economy.

Rose said she sees her participation in the program as something that will be sustainable in the long run.

”You don't always look at investing as something that brings back financial gain, sometimes you look at investing as giving the community back something,” she said.