The push to promote all things local is gaining momentum. More people are trying to eat produce grown in the area where they live, shop at small stores instead of giant chains and buy products made by local artisans.
In some communities, they can even pay with local currency-which bankers like John Durso see as a unique opportunity. "Participating in a program that is going to support local businesses like this, it's a homerun," says Durso, vice president of St. Edmond's Federal Savings Bank in Philadelphia and chairman of the nonprofit Ardmore Initiative that runs a local currency program.
Local currencies have been around for decades, but seem to flourish during times of economic distress. The money is perfectly legal, as long as it doesn't resemble the U.S. dollar.
Ed Collom, a University of Southern Maine sociologist who has studied the topic, estimates that the country has more than 200 local currency systems. Though each system varies, generally the money can only be used within a confined area as a way to support neighborhood stores and restaurants.
The currency initiatives are often started by local nonprofits. Banks don't have to participate for them to work-but some choose to get involved.
The BerkShares program in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts works directly with five local banks to distribute and exchange the currency. It is offered at a 5 percent discount to dollars, so $95 U.S. dollars equals $100 of BerkShares.
In the Ithaca Hours program in Upstate New York, a handful of local banks participate by accepting the currency as partial payment for fees and loan installments.
The Downtown Dollars program in Ardmore, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia, was funded in part by local banks. St. Edmond's, Beneficial Bank, Bryn Mawr Trust Co., and Firstrust Bank all agreed to donate $2,500 apiece to help fund a round of Downtown Dollars.
Their investment has enabled the Ardmore Initiative to offer consumers the chance to get two Downtown Dollars for $1. The local money can be spent at any of the 90 participating area businesses.
Each of the four banks' logos are printed on the Downtown Dollars. "The banks knew this was a good thing," says Durso. "Every transaction that happens, their logos are going to flash in front of people."
The first batch of $15,000 Downtown Dollars, offered in May, sold out in minutes. Due to the heavy demand, the second round of $20,000 offered in November was distributed using a lottery system. Durso says eventually he'd like to see consumers be able to withdraw Downtown Dollars from local banks.
The banks that participate in local currency systems say they are a good promotional tool. It shows their commitment to local businesses-a big part of their customer base. It also distinguishes them from their megabank counterparts, which have tended to shy away from such programs. Local branches of several major banks declined to participate in the Downtown Dollars initiative, Durso says.
"What it is doing is strengthening our community banks," says Susan Witt, a co-founder of the BerkShares program and executive director of the New Economics Institute, a think tank in Great Barrington, Mass. "It's giving local people trust in their local banks again and giving local banks a good name."