Ithacash focuses on kickstarting local economy
It’s no secret the ongoing construction on the Commons has not been kind to the businesses on it. Torn up surfaces make it difficult for shoppers to meander their way through like they used to, and events that once brought in thousands of visitors are rerouted to other sites downtown. But Scott Morris, the founder of Ithacash, wanted to rewrite this narrative.
“All the complaining about it does is make people feel more icky about the idea of going downtown,” Morris said. “It doesn’t actually help the people who were hurting the most, who were those downtown businesses, so we did Presents on the Commons to offer something constructive to the conversation.”
During the month of December, customers armed with a map visited participating businesses around the Commons in search of hidden presents. The businesses got more traffic –– Morris said Alphabet Soup got more than 200 visits from the contest alone, and shoppers were rewarded with Morris’ local currency startup, Ithacash, which they can spend at the shops they visited when it launches in May. Through Presents on the Commons, Morris was able to promote the benefits of this local currency system before its upcoming launch.
Local currencies are just like they sound: money spent and earned locally, and Ithacash aims to encourage residents to promote the Ithaca economy. Once the currency launches in May, Ithaca Dollars, stylized as i$, can be spent in place of U.S. dollars at participating businesses:The Ithaca Voice reported in March that more than 55 local merchants, including Autumn Leaves Bookstore and Cinemapolis, will be accepting Ithaca Dollars.
Ithaca Dollars are connected to U.S. dollars on a one-to-one exchange rate, which Morris said is a general rule followed by other local currency systems such as the Bristol and Brixton Pounds systems in the United Kingdom and BerkShares in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. However, participants can purchase them at a bonus rate of i$125 for U.S. $100, and they can also earn discounts by becoming members of Ithacash or supporting Ithacash grants for nonprofits. Ithacash will also have a digital format in which members can use their phones to make payments via txt2pay.
Local currencies like Ithacash support the local economy by keeping the cash on “Main Street” where people conduct their daily lives, as opposed to on Wall Street, where Morris said the money put into the system usually doesn’t return to Main Street.
“So many people are struggling to make ends meet, to make rent, to afford enough food to eat, to pay for tuition, much less enjoy the lifestyles they know they could enjoy,” Morris said. “These kinds of models come in to help fill in the gaps where regular dollars are failing us for one reason or another.”
Local currencies have a long history in the United States, Morris said. He said after gaining independence, states used them to engage in commerce before the establishment of a federal currency system, and citizens during the Great Depression used them to keep their livelihoods going. According to a 2013 study called “Ten Square Miles Surrounded By Reality? Materialising Alternative Economies Using Local Currencies,” by Peter North, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool whose research focuses on alternative economies, these systems regained popularity in the 1990s. In his paper, he explained that activists of Local Exchange Trading Schemes sought a way to return economic power to their communities and provide local resilience in the wake of neoliberalism and globalization.
In the United Kingdom, currency systems such as the Manchester “Bobbins” and the Canterbury “Tales” gave these LETS activists a venue for discourse on the role of money and the value of work in local economies. However, since business participation was limited due to the complication of using an additional currency, LETS was confined to exchanging household goods and services, and most of the currencies died out, according to North.
Ithaca also had a local currency system before Ithacash called Ithaca HOURS, in which shoppers and businesses could utilize paper bills called HOURS in place of U.S. dollars at a rate of $10 to 1 HOUR. North included Ithaca HOURS as a case study in his examination of local currencies because it had been functioning since 1991. Ithaca HOURS eventually fell out of use by 2009, as the founding organization discontinued support. But with Ithacash, Morris is trying to continue their philosophy of promoting the strength of the local economy and community.
“You can gauge the value of a currency system based on the outcomes that it generates for society,” Morris said, pointing out that much of the U.S. currency is in warfare, oil and Wall Street rather than social programming. “It’s clear that the U.S. dollar isn’t meeting all of our needs, and there’s nothing standing in the way of us creating other models to meet and fill those needs of our own accord.”
BerkShares, another local currency, launched in their present form in 2006 and came from a long town history of alternative currencies in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. They are now accepted at more than 400 businesses in Western Massachusetts and bordering towns in New York and Connecticut.
Alice Maggio, program coordinator for BerkShares and the local currency program director at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, said BerkShares as they exist now came out of a desire of area businesses to bring back the local currency offerings on a more permanent scale. Maggio said many small business owners like local currencies because they keep spending local and help such businesses survive in an economic climate dominated by multinational corporations.
Local currencies are on the rise, and Morris said he encourages Ithacans to become familiar with these kinds of economic systems.
“It’s definitely the way of the future,” Morris said. “These things are a part of our economic future, and we will have a much more diverse experience with money in the future.”
Amanda Hutchinson is a senior journalism major who got rid of all the U.S. dollars in her bank account. You can email her at [email protected].