GREAT BARRINGTON — BerkShares, a local currency for the Berkshire Region, was launched in 2006 with a message so simple it almost seems hokey now.
With the slogan "keeping it local," our aim was to inspire and encourage people to spend their money at locally owned businesses rather than chains, box stores, or online retailers. In an era of profound globalization, BerkShares were recognized by The New York Times in February of 2007 as "a great socioeconomic experiment" that pushed in the opposite direction.
These local banknotes were a radical rethinking of one of our most basic economic tools — money. It involved injecting human elements such as beauty, pride, celebration and connection into what we often refer to as "cold hard cash."
This month, as we celebrate BerkShares' 10th anniversary, we reflect on our accomplishments and make plans for the future.
Benefit local economy
With their beautiful design and five percent boost in buying power built into the exchange rate, BerkShares have been a compelling tool to get people thinking about the implications of their spending decisions. As a number of recent economic studies by Civic Economics have shown, only approximately 13 cents of any dollar spent at a chain retailer remain in a local economy; by contrast, when we spend our dollar at an independent retailer approximately 48 cents stay and recirculate in that local economy.
BerkShares empower our small businesses — the family-owned auto-repair shop, the independent bookstore, the Main Street boutique — by telling their stories and encouraging people to patronize them.
When you spend BerkShares at one of the 400 participating businesses the money stays here, supporting local jobs, families, schools, infrastructure, and community organizations. This matters; as one BerkShares business owner told us: "it really does affect your wallet when money leaves town." BerkShares are a bold statement of local interdependence, and they have brought journalists from around the world to discover what kind of region prints its own money.
Ten years into this experiment, Berkshire consumers are more committed than ever to the idea of "Buy Local." Now, the next step is to apply this commitment to businesses that do not yet exist.
One promising approach is to ask the following question: What are we buying from elsewhere that we could make here instead? What natural resources do we have that could provide opportunities to value-add right here in the Berkshires?
In the face of the Berkshires' declining population, it is especially important to find new ways to provide opportunities and jobs that can support families here. All of us benefit from a stronger local economy, so how can we all contribute to the creation of these new "import replacement" businesses?
BerkShares, Inc. wants to promote this conversation among all participants in our local economy and aims to provide venues and frameworks that will spur this new kind of economic development.
This fall, we have organized a series of community workshops called "Bringing 'Buy Local' Full Circle" to imagine business plans for a regional economy. Co-facilitated by the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network (MSBDC) and open to all, the workshops unlock the collective knowledge of town managers, business owners, mothers, non-profit leaders, and retirees to brainstorm and flesh out import-replacement businesses.
The ideas from these workshops will be available on our website, and also offered to the next class of students who register for Entry to Entrepreneurship, the business planning program for young people that we run in partnership with the MSBDC and Berkshire Community College. With guidance from community members, students in Entry to Entrepreneurship imagine and write business plans for the kind of import replacement businesses that could fill gaps in our local economy and provide livelihoods to our next generation. Registration for next year's spring program will open in November.
Join us as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of BerkShares tonight at the Prairie Whale in Great Barrington, from 6 to 11 p.m. The party is open to everyone, with a suggested donation of 5 to 20 BerkShares at the door. Beer will be provided by Wandering Star Craft Brewery, snacks will be provided by Prairie Whale, and a dance party by DJ BFG.
Alice Maggio is executive director of BerkShares, Inc. and the local currency program director at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.