MAIN STREET — There’s a plethora of currencies traveling in the wallets of tourist-heavy Santa Monica, from dollars to euros to yen.
Local business owner Janabai Amsden hopes to soon add a new type of exchange to the mix.
The environmental advocate and owner of natural foods restaurant Euphoria Loves Rawvolution recently put together a group of monetary and green financial experts to begin the process of creating an alternative currency that can be spent only at participating establishments in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, sustaining the local economy and rewarding consumers for keeping their money in the community.
“We want this to be more than just a feel good greenwashing thing that people can do,” Amsden said. “We want this to be a way of facilitating the local economy and encouraging growth within the community.”
Advising the project is Chris Lindstrom, who in 2006 co-founded the BerkShares program, which is the local currency serving the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts. The program involves more than a dozen bank branches spread over about seven towns where residents can exchange federal dollars for BerkShares, which can then be used at any participating businesses that accept the currency.
The benefit for the consumer is the 5 percent discount they receive in the exchange rate, which is 95 federal cents per BerkShare, while the business has the advantage of ensured patronage.
More than 1 million BerkShares were circulated in the first nine months of the program, a figure that has grown to 2 million today, accepted at more than 360 businesses.
“The act of creating a currency felt somewhat of a prerequisite to reclaiming a certain community and national sovereignty that people have given up,” Lindstrom, who lives in New York, said.
The problem however with the BerkShares program is that it has no revenue coming in to sustain it.
Lindstrom, who no longer serves on the board at BerkShares, said he isn’t sure how successful the program would have been if it wasn’t free.
It cost an estimated $100,000 to start the BerkShares program, covering printing costs and labor.
“In the next incarnation, the trick is to find a way of creating a currency that is in a system that pays for itself but holds onto a certain level of integrity and neutrality,” he said.
The project in Santa Monica is still in its infancy stages, having had its first meeting just last week. Amsden said that there’s been dialogue of introducing an alternative currency in the green business community for the past several years.
Hollis Doherty, a local activist and associate with the Unterguggenberger Institute in Austria, which deals with complementary currencies, said the key to the success of the program will be to keep the exchange local and support small mom and pops businesses, not chain stores.
“If you take money you make and go to a big box store and buy something, very little of that money you spend is going to stay in your locality,” she said. “If you eat at Rawvolution, the money you spent is staying in that community because it’s a community-owned business and it’s not being outsourced.”
But there’s some skepticism with the viability of the program. Don Depamphilis, a finance professor at Loyola Marymount University, said he doesn’t expect the program to be a resounding success, noting that it sounds similar to a money order or gift certificate.
“If I went to the bank and got $100 worth of Santa Monica dollars and put it in the drawer, there’s a possibility I would never see them,” he said.