Funny Money to Boost a Biz?

Berkshire Eagle - Derek Gentile - Local businessmen and town officials are bracing for a slew of pseudo-cash slated to circulate in South County at the end of next month.
But it's all for a good cause.

About $865,000 worth of BerkShares, a local currency created specifically to encourage consumers to buy locally in South County, will be minted and released the weekend of Sept. 29.

Before the local branch of the FBI gets too excited, Susan Witt, executive director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, explained that BerkShares are not intended to replace federal currency.

Instead, they are a tool employed by the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and local banks and businesses to boost South County commerce.

"It's a way of advocating for the local economy," she said. "It's a way of keeping the money spent in South County circulating in South County."

The BerkShares' rate structure provides a discount for the consumer; the exchange rate is 90 cents per BerkShare. In other words, when a person goes to a bank and purchases 100 BerkShares, he/she will pay $90.

When a BerkShare is spent, merchants also can redeem it for 90 cents on the dollar at one of four participating financial institutions: Berkshire, Lee and Pittsfield Co-Operative banks and at Salisbury (Conn.) Bank branches.

Harvey said the banks deserve thanks because they are handling the paperwork involved with using nonfederal currency.

Currently, according to LouAnn Harvey, a member of the BerkShares' board of directors, a majority of locally owned stores in South County that have been contacted so far have agreed to participate. A list of those businesses can be found at:


» If you buy it ...
BerkShares are a local currency for Southern Berkshire County and are aimed at building the economy and encouraging consumers to buy locally.
Exchange rate: 90 cents per BerkShare. (Ninety federal dollars will yield 100 BerkShares.) Federal dollars remain on deposit at the BerkShare Exchange Banks to redeem excess BerkShares at a 10 percent discount; 100 BerkShares would be exchanged for 90 federal dollars.
Denominations: BerkShares come in 1s, 5s, 10s, 20s and 50s.
Where can they be used: Look for businesseswith the sign, "BerkShares Accepted Here."
What they buy: BerkShares are accepted at face value for goods and services — 10 BerkShares for a $10 purchase. However, some restrictions may apply.
— Source: BerkShares Inc. Web site

There may be some restrictions on the use of BerkShares, depending on the individual nature of each business, according to Witt.

The E.F. Schumacher Society, a local nonprofit organization, is acting as the research and development arm of the project.

Harvey said that the BerkShares currency will feature five "Berkshire heroes" on its faces: civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, illustrator Norman Rockwell, writer Herman Melville and local farmer-activist Robin Van En, and the Mahican Indians.

The BerkShares will be unveiled at a special ceremony at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m., she said.

Harvey said the plan is to issue the currency on Sept. 29, with an expiration date of a year.

"At that point, we will assess how well the project went," she said. If deemed successful, the currency will be reissued for the next year.

The concept is not new, Witt said. In fact, local currency had its national roots in Great Barrington in 1989, when former businessman Frank Tortoriello, former owner of The Deli, produced Deli Dollars. Tortoriello was unable to finance a move of his business to another location.

With the help of Witt and others, he circulated the Deli Dollars, which his customers bought for 80 cents on the dollar. Within three months, Tortoriello had raised $5,000 to finance his move.

That innovation landed Tortoriello in the national news. Since then, the Chamber of Commerce and the Schumacher Society have had several other launches of local currency for limited periods.