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The BNote: Green Currency in Baltimore

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Where are we now, and how did we get this far?

The energy is building.  Even before we have printed a single note, everywhere we go in
Baltimore people have already heard of the BNote, and businesses are
signing on to accept them when we launch next year.  We are finding that people are very receptive to the idea of an alternative economic system – one that will benefit people instead of corporations.  Google searches now show blogs and internet media referencing Baltimore’s new local currency, and we’re starting to get coverage in the local press and on the radio.  Our currency design contest went global when other sites starting picking us up on the net.  When the BNote arrives in Baltimore, only the birds will be surprised. 

In less than a year, we have managed to build this idea into an organization that is on track to create a strong local currency with broad participation.  Much of this progress has to do with the diversity and positive vision that the Evolver movement has already been able to foster in its local groups.

The first Baltimore spore on local currencies happened in mid-2009.  Damien Nichols, who attended, suggested to his friend Michael Tew that he come to the next spore and meet the people there, who seemed to be working to achieve similar goals.  Michael had background in both microfinance and legislative lobbying, and had been looking for an opportunity to advance alternative economic systems on a community level.  Michael attended the food spore, and on the strength of his participation in the discussion that night, he was invited to make a short presentation at the 2012 spore on the subject of microfinance.  There, he put forth the idea that, by the end of 2012, a micro-finance based economy (which is fundamentally different from the Capitalist economy in many important ways) would be the dominant form of economic organization for the majority of the people on planet earth.  And that Baltimore would be a very good place to bring microfinance and local currency together.

At the end of that spore, Michael met Jeff Dicken, a long-time supporter of microfinance efforts with an IT systems and arts background.  Through this and subsequent conversations, the idea of a local currency being a necessity for a resilient community and city, in the face of the economic meltdown and further upheaval to come, began to take root.  Soon after, Jill Harrison brought her own social justice and non-profit background to the endeavor.  After some informal meetings over the winter, Michael moved to Baltimore in March 2010, and a series of regular meetings was established.  At first, there were just two or three of us, but as we continued to talk with other Evolvers about the effort, we started to attract people willing to help, and by the end of June we had an increasingly effective and growing team of enthusiastic volunteers.

The basic questions on starting a currency were raised: debit system or paper money; what organizational form to adopt; how to go about designing and printing the currency; how to enroll people in participating, and so on.  Notes from each meeting, including links to relevant Internet resources, were distributed among the group.  Keeping everyone communicating was one of the keys to forming a committed, ongoing project, and many of the system’s features – the “BNote” name, the approach of issuing only 1- and 5-dollar value notes the first year, etc. – were discussed informally via email between meetings before being adopted by the group.  The Lewes (England) Pound site’s guide to starting a currency and Peter North’s book Local Money provided invaluable guidance as we started to put together the strongest features of other currencies already in existence.

We decided that our currency would be convertible to and from U.S. Dollars, and that we would restrict ourselves to a specific, identifiable geographic neighborhood for a pilot project.  Both Jeff and Ian McDonald had realized independently that the Hampden community in Baltimore would be a strong launching place for the BNote, and as we looked more closely, we found that the area had many features that are important for the strong adoption of a local currency:

Small-business support.  The Hampden Merchant's Association lists 162 independent businesses as members.  There are very few chain stores in the neighborhood, and Hampden residents tend to do a greater amount of their shopping locally than in many other Baltimore neighborhoods.

 

Defined geographic area.  Hampden is in the heart of Baltimore city, bounded by the Jones Falls waterway (and expressway) on the West and Hopkins University on the East, with clear boundaries to the North and South as well.

Community.  Historically, the area was originally populated by immigrant mill workers. Although in recent years there has been much gentrification, a strong sense of community identity exists, and there are many longstanding community organizations.  At the same time, there is a wave of young, progressive Baltimoreans moving into the neighborhood, opening businesses, and providing new energy.

 

To encourage residents to think about the nature of money, and to inspire a continuing dialogue that will shape the details of the system we are setting up, we are having a series of community presentation and discussion sessions.  These generally start with videos on currency and general economic subjects, followed by discussion of our system and any questions or suggestions that are raised, and we encourage people to sign up for our monthly email newsletter, the BNote Buzz.  We are in the process of identifying useful books and publications, and we have developed a small circulating library of these materials. We are also making animations and movies to explain the various aspects of our vision, and to communicate ideas that stimulate interest in our project.
To encourage community participation, we decided to solicit designs for the notes from the community. We launched our currency design contest at the annual HampdenFest in September, where we had a booth staffed all day by our volunteers.

System Finances

We have decided on converting U.S. dollars into BNotes at a 10% discount – $10 will buy 11 BNotes, which circulate equivalent to a dollar.  In this way, people get a real benefit from adopting the currency, and merchants who are able to spend their BNotes with other businesses or residents in the system do not see any negative financial impact.  Merchants can use the BNotes they accept in a number of ways.  They can use them to buy stock or services for their business, from others in the network.  They can pay themselves and/or their employees partially in BNotes.  They can give them as change, to encourage circulation.  They can use them for their own purchases. And if, after all that, they have the need to exchange some back for dollars, they may be redeemed at the same rate: 11 BNotes for $10.  There is a clear financial benefit to using the notes, and this speeds up the circulation.

 

The more extensive the network of storefront businesses, independent service providers, artisans, and residents who accept BNotes, the longer the notes will circulate (ideally indefinitely), and the stronger the system will be overall.

With no spread between the purchase and redemption rates to benefit us, we will rely on other sources of income to fund the administration of the system.  While we expect to rely on contributions and grants to fund the initial expenses, we will also be able to partially support our organization through the dynamic of local currency “leakage,” which occurs when the currency is bought and then withdrawn from circulation by collectors and souvenir hunters.  This will include sales of mint and withdrawn notes to collectors through an organized marketing campaign.

Another source of revenue will come from sales of artwork based on the BNote, such as postcards, T-shirts, and posters, and from commissions on sales of original local artwork through our website.

In addition, the money on deposit to back the notes in circulation, amounting to 90% of the face value of the circulating BNotes, will generate a small amount of interest and will act as a micro-loan fund secured against cash flow, enabling us to make hybrid micro-loans.

Micro-funding

It is important to note that the capital amassed as a result of currency conversion can be used to give loans for the creation and expansion of local micro-businesses.  In our view, this can be accomplished successfully if the micro-entrepreneurs are among the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the community.  Traditional charities generally do not reach this sector because it is difficult, time consuming, and usually not a high priority (and banks avoid poor people like the plague).

A secondary, but important feature of this process is the filling in of supply and service chains, which enable merchants to use the currency rather than cash it in.  This, in turn, will build a stronger currency, enabling the bills to stay in circulation, and also reduce the need for goods to be brought in from longer distances, reducing the area’s carbon footprint – another contribution to sustainability.

Looking Forward

We have accomplished a lot in just a few months, but a great deal remains to be done.  We are now developing a formal Mission Statement and will move forward with the process of incorporating.  We are also setting up an advisory board to be comprised of leaders from Hampden and other communities where the notes will circulate, as well as experts in currency, microfinance, and social business.  And we will continue to enlist businesses to participate in the rollout next Spring.

The limited communication we have had with other east coast currencies has been very helpful, and we are planning both conference calls and road trips to establish stronger ties.  We are building a Google Group for alt-currency organizers, to share our experience and help to create stronger systems. 

If you are interested in the alternative currency systems starting across the Evolver network, and elsewhere around the world, send a message to [email protected] and join the dialogue.  With more experience and a greater level of communication, the quality and stability of these currencies will continue to strengthen, enabling localization projects and helping our economies become more social and sustainable.  

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