GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. – It looks like Monopoly money, but the colorful currency created by collaborators in the western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington is helping pump real dollars into the local economy.
The creative cash is called "BerkShares," a play on words, referring to the mountainous region called the Berkshires, where businesses and citizens have come together to support each other in these tough economic times.
Asa Hardcastle, the president of BerkShares Inc., says the unique bills can be picked up at local banks. For every 95 cents, consumers get a dollar's worth of BerkShares, which can be used to purchase goods and services at participating local shops. So far, 400 businesses have signed up.
"Local currency helps to keep the money flowing between friends and neighbors, local businesses, which helps everybody to have a better life," Hardcastle said, sipping on a cup of joe bought with BerkShares.
They're not alone. From Detroit to North Carolina to upstate New York, at least a dozen communities are trying to encourage people to buy locally, creating their own currencies.
Printing the bills also benefits local companies: Excelsior Printing of North Adams, Mass., does the print work on special security paper manufactured locally by Crane & Co. of Dalton, Mass. The bills feature local artists, heroes and historical figures and come complete with individual serial numbers, making them a tough target for counterfeiters. The program is made possible through private grant funding.
Roughly 2.3 million minted BerkShares have circulated through the community since the program's launch in 2006.
And, while BerkShares are not considered legal tender, Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers, stands behind the local currency.
"Philosophically, it's very much along the lines of the foundations that we set up our store under. Supporting local, sustainable producers. Keeping the community local wherever possible and so, when the BerkShares came along, that was right up our alley. We really embraced it," Rubiner said.
His shop takes special effort to buy local products and support local dairy farmers.
"We begin to feel we can take care of ourselves maybe a little bit better," he said "Maybe it does bind us a little more closely."
Customer Heather Fisch stopped by Rubiner's to try a slice-of-the-day, saying she's a big supporter of BerkShares.
"I think it's nice to have a constant little reminder that we're a community and we're in it together," Fisch said. "It's kind of like a Great Barrington pride moment. I'm a citizen of Great Barrington. Here's my BerkShare."
Historically, it's not a new phenomenon. Local communities printed their own currency during past recessions, as recently as the 1980s. During the 1860s, local banks printed money. New England's mills often paid their employees in scrip, a system of payment that could only be used at a company store or in the local town.
Robert Bench, a senior fellow at Boston University and former National Bank supervisor, says local currency efforts have proved successful in the past, helping to encourage consumers spend close to home.
"I think it brings out the community spirit that's in everybody's self conscience," he said.