Calgary dollars: What the buck?

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How did you first hear about the concept of a community currency? Denise Hearn writes.

After playing a local music show 6 years ago, I was handed something akin to monopoly money – 25 Calgary Dollars. “Great,” I thought. “This was supposed to be a paying gig.” The Canadian city of Calgary is better known for big oil and cowboy-laden ‘Stampede’, than for its own local currency. With little explanation from my payer, and no prior knowledge of complementary currencies, it took me 6 years to inquire about what exactly could be done with Calgary’s community currency.

Complementary currencies have undergone many forms and experimental phases over previous decades in localities around the world. They tend to be economically counter-cyclical, meaning there is a resurgence of interest in these alternative forms of exchange following downtowns and recessions. Many complementary currencies exist globally with Bristol, Brixton, and Exeter in the UK all having a local ‘pound,’ as well as the Regiogeld in Germany, the Makkie in Amsterdam, Ithaca Hours in the USA, and hundreds of others.

Complementary Currencies cannot be deposited in banks and do not earn interest, encouraging people to spend them in local communities with locally-owned businesses. ‘Bioregionalism’ uses naturally defined boundaries, in the case of Calgary – the Bow Valley watershed, to encourage investment in local supply chains and to stimulate local economies. Some currencies are based on time exchanges (time-banking), while others use either physical notes or digital exchanges of relative value.

Earlier in the province of Alberta’s history, the former Premier William Aberhart had introduced the Alberta Prosperity Certificate in efforts to stimulate the economy following the Great Depression. The note had negative interest, which encouraged holders to circulate the currency to avoid penalisation for stockpiling. Though the program was cancelled after 1 year, the ideological groundwork of an interest-free complementary currency with a value unattached to federal volatility had been laid in Canada.

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Fast forward to 1995 when Calgary Dollars were introduced. There are currently about C$80,000 in circulation, and each time a new participant in the community registers, a new C$20 is issued to increase currency circulation. These local Dollars can be accepted for transit tickets, recreation centre entrance fees, affordable housing rent, and for buying beers at local bars (among other things).

In 2016, the City has also agreed to accept 50% of business license fees in Calgary Dollars – a considerable step in potentially spurring wider adoption.

With all of the merits, what challenges exist for scaling? Gerald Wheatley, Director of Calgary Dollars, believes further growth is prevented by public attitudes toward money, lack of government backing and business support, and stringency of social and environmental standards which make it difficult to scale. In the case of Calgary Dollars, participating businesses must be local (meaning the business owner must live in the city), and meet certain basic community standards.

Additionally, it seems that local currencies gain traction with those already committed to their philosophical merit – they only reach those already associated with social networks that strongly support environmental and social aims. The typical profile of a $C user is 20-40 years old, well-educated, and lower middle or middle income. However, some complementary currency systems are aimed at more vulnerable user groups: ageing seniors or the economically disadvantaged, as examples. If judged solely on their economic merits, local currencies are sometimes deemed unsustainable and underutilized; they, therefore, must be evaluated in the context of other associated social benefits which provide a valuable tool for strengthening community fabric.

With rising concerns of federal currency volatility around the world, complementary currencies provide a mechanism for increased local self-sufficiency and citizen agency in goods and services exchanges. As evidenced by the fact that hundreds of currencies are in circulation globally, people have a demonstrated appetite for alternatives to traditional money. Impending discussions of universal basic income for citizens may also complement unconventional means of citizen exchange, which value trades in new and innovative ways.

Thanks: Many thanks to Gerald Wheatley and Tanya Schiffner from Calgary Dollars and the Arusha Centre for taking time to be interviewed and contributing greatly to this article.

Resources:  

http://ijccr.net/ – International Journal of Community Currency Research

www.complementarycurrency.org

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