Bay Bucks: Businesses are signing up for local currency

REGION – Put your money where your community is…Bay Bucks are here.

Joining some 60 communities across the United States and Canada that have local money systems, northwest lower Michigan now has Bay Bucks in denominations of $1, $5, $10, and $20. They have the same local value as U.S. dollars, and can be spent at participating businesses.

"A Bay Buck is on par with the federal dollar, it just looks different and cannot be spent at a non-local business," explains Natasha Lapinski, one of the program's organizers.

The bills are unmistakable, and quite striking. Designed by a group of graphic arts students at Northwestern Michigan College, they feature some of northern Michigan's natural features and native species, including the dune lily, a piping plover, the Lake Michigan shoreline, and a whitetail deer.

Bay Bucks is a project that has been a long time coming. The Traverse Area Community Currency Corporation, or TACCC, is heading the local money effort. The group was incorporated in 2004 following years of work by area volunteers to establish a local currency program in the region. Funding for the project came from private sources and a grant from Oryana Natural Foods Market in Traverse City.

While Bay Bucks is its first project, TACCC board president Lapinski says in the future the group hopes to be able to give grants and no-interest small business loans, similar to the work of other local currency programs.

As of early October, nearly 50 individuals and businesses had signed up to be Bay Bucks members. A directory of all participating businesses in the region will be updated periodically at The list includes retail establishments, food markets, and a variety of service professionals.

"It's supporting local businesses," says Kate Mitteer, owner of Zany Consignment Boutique in Traverse City, a participating business. "It's keeping money in our local economy."

The power of a buck

According to the TACCC, local currency is defined as "money issued by a community to add wealth to the local economy, to support locally-owned businesses, and to enhance economic sustainability and social justice."

"We have seen the deterioration of our local economy, as many communities have across the country, from large, big box businesses," says Lapinski. "For every dollar spent at Wal-Mart, Border's, Pet Smart, only 13 cents stays in our local economy and the rest exits the community."

To counteract this, local currency only has value in local communities and at local businesses.

"We see Bay Bucks as a supplement to the federal currency and one that will foster and enhance the exchange of local goods and services and hopefully provide an incentive for consumers to shop locally," Lapinski adds.

The program organizers see much enthusiasm for local currency from area communities. "Individuals are actually making up a lot of our membership right now," says Lapinski. For $20 U.S. dollars, individuals get $20 in Bay Bucks. Individuals can also get Bay Bucks by accepting it as change from a participating business.

"We are hoping that with a decal in the window of every participating business, people will be attracted to the concept and spend it when they get it," says Lapinski.

Area businesses can join at three different levels and there are also membership categories for non-profit organizations and government. Lapinski says Bay Bucks representatives will approach Traverse City officials about the program after it gets underway.

"It is my hope that some day the residents of TC will be able to pay property taxes in Bay Bucks as they are presently doing in Toronto," she says.

Bay Bucks currency is based on two existing, and highly successful, local currency models, the Ithaca (NY) Hours and the Toronto Dollar. The TACCC board describes Bay Bucks as "trustworthy tools to keep our wealth close to home," says Lapinski. "It is our hope that local businesses will take pride in Bay Bucks as a strong, grassroots community effort."

TACCC recommends that each business determine a policy for accepting Bay Bucks at a rate that will keep them in circulation. Bay Bucks need to be spent to have value. They are not currently accepted at area banks. While some businesses may be able to accept 100 percent of Bay Bucks same as dollars because they are able to spend them quickly, other businesses may accept them one day a week, have a specific service or item that can be purchased with them, or allow just a percentage of the total cost to be paid in local currency.

Lapinski says the board is encouraging service-type businesses to accept 75 to 100 percent of payment in Bay Bucks since they often are cash-only businesses. But for others, such as specialty retail merchants, TACCC suggests they start small, maybe 10 percent, until they get an idea of how much they can quickly re-circulate. "For all businesses it will depend, of course, on how they plan to use it," adds Lapinski, whether that is to pay suppliers who are willing or fellow participants, give as change, or use as a portion of employee pay. "We hope to be able to consult with businesses who are having trouble spending their Bay Bucks or are not sure of the acceptance rate they should be using."

Cash community

At Omena Cut Flowers, owner Carolyn Faught will accept 50 percent of the purchase price in Bay Bucks. "I got involved because I think that anything that makes people more aware of the importance of shopping locally is a good thing," Faught says. She also thought it was a great deal for inaugural participants and that it may get more exposure for her business.

Right now, businesses, non-profits, and governmental organizations receive 50 percent extra Bay Bucks in exchange for their membership fee. While membership is not mandatory to accept and spend Bay Bucks, it does provide a listing in the quarterly directory and other promotional materials associated with the program.

Oryana general manager Bob Struthers says some of the staff at Oryana, a participating business, have expressed an interest in taking Bay Bucks as a portion of their pay and that the food co-op is considering that as the program gets underway. As far as an acceptance rate, Struthers says the cooperative is looking at capping the amount of Bay Bucks that can be used for a single transaction at 5 percent.

"We anticipate the co-op will be a very popular place for spending Bay Bucks," Struthers says, and he wants to make sure he only accepts as much as he can quickly turn around and spend. In addition to giving as change to customers, he says some of the co-op's regular business partners are also accepting them.

This idea of local currency continually circulating within the community and supporting independent businesses is something Chris Treter is happy to encourage. Treter, who owns Higher Grounds Trading Co. in Leland with his wife Jody, says one of the main reasons they joined the local currency program is because it follows their business philosophy. As a for-profit fair-trade company, Higher Grounds works for social and economic justice through their business, explains Treter.

"Bay Bucks is aligned well with our mission," he says, adding that building and supporting local communities and businesses, including those in northwest Michigan, is the core of a local money system.

Richard and Melissa Waskiewicz of Apex Electric of GT are participating in the Bay Bucks program because they like the idea of promoting local business. "It's about keeping some of Traverse City's money right in Traverse City," Richard Waskiewicz says, adding that promoting a network of businesses that accept local currency will help boost the local economy.

Spend it when you get it. That's how local currency gets and gives its value. Now, it's time to see if Bay Bucks will mean big bucks for the local economy.

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