The Grand Traverse area has its own currency, but not too many people know about it. Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra reports on how local artists hope to change that.
What comes in 1s, 5s, 10s and 20s, is the same size and shape as a U.S. dollar, but instead of George Washington or Abe Lincoln, there are colorful pictures of cherry blossoms, barn owls and white-tailed deer? Why it's BAY BUCKS!
Bay Bucks are paper bills," explains Brad Kik. "They're usable just like American currency. But because they're created locally are designed to be spent locally."
In this case, in and around the Grand Traverse area. Brad Kik helped start the Bay Bucks initiative back in 2005. Currently, there's around $12,000 worth of Bay Bucks in circulation, and about 100 certified Bay Bucks members who use them.
Now, local currencies aren't really anything new. There are dozens of them around the country. The most popular is probably the Ithaca HOUR – which was created in 1991 in Ithaca, New York.
The general hope is that a local currency will encourage local spending...which in turn will stimulate the local economy.
So that's the theory. But is it working? I asked a bunch of people in downtown Traverse City if they had ever heard of Bay Bucks. Pretty much no one had. That's because most of the big businesses in town don't accept them. The few places that do accept them – like Oryanna, the local food co-op – end up sitting on thousands of dollars worth of Bay Bucks with no real way to circulate them back into the community. In other words, the money ends up pooling in one place.
DeDe Alderman says that's where artists can step in. Alderman plays percussion and is a volunteer on the Bay Bucks Board.
"It's easy for a musician or singer to promote any kind of new cultural idea," says Alderman. "We are the spokespeople, in the spotlight, on stage. It's real easy to deliver a message. We can say, Hey! I accept Bay Bucks. And then we can use Bay Bucks and flow them out to a local yoga place or buy clothing for a gig, or go to the hat shop. Whatever."
But just how essential is a local currency to a local economy? Tim Hartford is an economist with The Financial Times in London. He says local currencies can build community spirit and are fun to talk about around the water cooler...
"But," says Hartford, "from an economic point of view, it's hard to see the benefit. It's hard to see what you get from this that you don't get from dealing in dollars. It's not going to create new jobs or prosperity."
Hartford says the only time local currencies can have real economic benefits is when the main currency – in this case: the dollar – becomes deflated and breaks down. Like it did during the depression, when local currencies first appeared on the scene.
Jody Gonyea lives and works in Traverse City. She likes the idea of Bay Bucks and doesn't need a deflation in the U.S. dollar to get behind them. What she does need is a practical use for them.
"I'd like to pay my bills with Bay Bucks – like Traverse City Light and Power! That'd be awesome. If it becomes sustainable and strong enough that it's a currency that you can pay a full amount in, at that point people will see it as a value. But that's the trick. How do you get people to get into it before it gets like that, and the only way it's going to get like that is if people choose to commit. It's a challenge."
Gonyea says what it needs is consistent work and education. And maybe a promotional song or two.