NEW YORK (MainStreet) Minting your own currency, digital or otherwise, may be a trend to bank on. Bitcoin, the decentralized digital currency, has become a bit of a bottle rocket, recently soaring in value to $1,200, only to fizzle back to Earth, now hovering in the $700 range. The volatility is a result of Bitcoin speculators continually reacting to news and rumors of global payment and processing acceptance. Ripple, Litecoin, PeerCoin, anoncoin and dozens of other "altcoins" are competing to outbid bitcoin for consumer adoption.
And then there are BerkShares, the decidedly low-tech currency that has blazed the trail for them all.
The local currency for Berkshire County in western Massachusetts, the printed bills are legal tender for a limited geographic area that launched an innovative "buy local" campaign back in 2006. One million BerkShares were initially distributed, but circulation now tops 4 million.
With BerkShares, your savings are automatically built in to your initial exchange. Issued by Berkshire county banks at a discount, $95 100 BerkShares. Nearly 400 businesses in the region accept the custom currency from customers -- and each other. It's a shrewd strategy to battle the big box stores, who don't accept the bespoke bills.
"Future plans could involve BerkShares checking accounts, electronic transfer of funds, ATM machines, and even a loan program to facilitate the creation of new, local businesses manufacturing more of the goods that are used locally," the BerkShares website says.
That forecasted loan program is apparently becoming a reality. BerkShares are getting a big boost with funding from an international non-profit organization that seeks to help the community expand the program.
The Doen Foundation, a supporter of "socially inclusive" initiatives in the Netherlands, recently awarded a $500,000 grant to the BerkShares organization to launch a local loan program tied to the currency.
"Partly as a result of the financial crisis, people no longer believe in banks, and banks are no longer willing to support many of the small, medium-size enterprises," Doen director Nina Tellegen told Jonathan Betz in an interview for Aljazeera America. "So by introducing this loan system within the BerkShares currency, that's a very important next step."
The Schumacher Center for a New Economics lists 16 active local currencies in the U.S. and provides reference materials detailing the legal issues as well as procedures for creating a local currency.
--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet