At the October 2009 meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board, Sandi Smith reported out from the partnerships committee that a $6,000 grant had been awarded to Think Local First. The grant was awarded in regular U.S. dollars. But it’s a local currency that those federal dollars are helping to explore – by paying for a study to see if a local currency is feasible in Washtenaw County.
On Tuesday evening at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library’s lower level multipurpose room, Think Local First held the first of three meetings designed to gauge interest and support for the idea of a local currency. Ingrid Ault, Think Local First’s executive director, said she was hoping that more than the 10 people who dropped by would attend.
One couple, Larry An and Eileen Ho, dropped by the Tuesday event, even though that wasn’t the reason they were visiting the library. They’d come with their fourth- and six-grade kids, who were looking for their artwork – the lower level of the library is regularly updated with exhibits of art created by students in Ann Arbor’s local schools.
What piqued An and Ho’s curiosity was the idea of adding a local currency as a tool in their cohousing development – Sunward Cohousing – to aid the distribution of the work. Currently, members of the development are supposed to work four hours a month on tasks that are determined by the development’s work committee. For example, An said he’d put in some time shoveling snow in the wake of the storm that hit Ann Arbor earlier in the week.
An’s effort at snow shoveling didn’t match another resident’s, he said, who spent the entire day shoveling – that exceeded the four-hour monthly requirement in short order. But there’s no way to store that extra labor. And as the residents of the development get older, An said, people might not be able to contribute to the kind of work they did when they were younger.
The idea of using a currency primarily as a way of banking time was one of four basic approaches to local currency presented on poster printouts at different “stations” in the multipurpose room on Tuesday night. A parade example of such an approach receiving national attention is Ithaca Hours.
Closer to home, a time-centered approach to local currency has been implemented by the Dexter Miller Community Co-op, a neighborhood cooperative on the city’s west side. [Chronicle coverage: "Another Day, Another Dex-Mil"] On payment of the membership fee and dues for the Dexter Miller community, members are issued 16 DexMills – each note is worth 15 minutes, for a total of four hours.
How you get your hands on the “money” is one way to distinguish among various approaches to local currency. A second main approach presented at Tuesday’s meeting was basically to conceive of a local currency as an alternative to ordinary U.S. federal currency. The local currency can be purchased with those federal dollars at some agreed rate of exchange. In Traverse City, Mich., Bay Bucks are an example of that approach.
Also visiting the Think Local First event on Tuesday was Stephen Ranzini, president of University Bank, who had spoken to the DDA at their October 2009 meeting about his experience with the paper currency model of local currency. From The Chronicle’s report of that meeting:
DDA board members were alerted to some existing experience with local currencies in the Ann Arbor banking community, when Stephen Ranzini addressed them during public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting. Ranzini is president of University Bank. He described how he’d begun his banking career in Newberry, Mich., near Sault Ste. Marie, and how he’d developed a local currency there. In the first year, they’d circulated around $0.5 million of local scrip, and found that it had increased local shopping. So it was an idea he thought was worth looking at.
The Traverse Area Community Currency Corporation, which issues Bay Bucks, describes on its website how most businesses that accept Bay Bucks don’t accept them for 100% of payment. The idea is to keep the Bucks in circulation and circulating – to achieve that goal, businesses can’t accept more Bucks in payment than they can reasonably expect to spend themselves.
The idea of using local currency for only partial payment for goods and services is key to the coupon model, which was the third main approach presented at the Think Local First event. At the meeting was a proponent of the coupon, or Unity model, Bob Van Bemmelen.
Van Bemmelen is a pharmacist, and he appealed to a medical model to explain part of his enthusiasm for this approach. Money is like blood, essential for getting goods and services (nutrients and oxygen) to the people who need them (cells of the body). While a newborn baby might have a few ounces of blood, he said, as the baby grows, it generates a sufficient amount of blood to deliver nourishment to the rest of the body.
One advantage of the coupon model, Van Bemmelen said, is that you can easily inject money into the system – you simply give it to people.
The fourth and final approach to local currency presented on posters was a barter system with “trade dollars” used as an accounting tool. An example of such a system is the Michigan Barter Marketplace.
Participants in the event Tuesday evening were asked to visit each station where the different currency models were explained on posters, and then fill out a sheet indicating their level of support for each approach.
The next two meetings will have the same format: Thurs., Feb. 25 at the Ypsilanti Senior Center; and Wed., March 3 at Vitosha Guest Haus Inn. More input will be eventually be solicited through an online survey, said Ault.