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Baltimore's local currency, the BNote, is 2 years old

At Liam Flynn's Ale House in Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District, two George Washingtons will get you a can of Natty Boh.

But a single Baltimore BNote, with an image of Frederick Douglass on one side and an oriole on the other, will get you the same beer at half price. It's a special the bar's proprietors use to promote the circulation of the local currency.

"It's a deal — and people take advantage of it every day," said Liam Flynn. "Usually it's about 20 BNotes a day."

The BNote recently turned 2 years old and is now accepted at more than 200 local businesses. What started out as a post-recession experiment appears to have developed staying power. A mixed directory of businesses accept the BNote — including farmers' market vendors and a roofer. But the currency's organizers say they will continue to expand the BNote network and tweak the system to make it friendlier for users.

The idea for the BNote stemmed from the economic downturn, said Julie Gouldener, program coordinator for the Baltimore Green Currency Association, the all-volunteer group that manages the BNote. As Wall Street floundered, a group gathered in Baltimore to discuss ways "to gain control of the local economy," she said.

The idea of developing a local currency (not a new concept; there are dozens across the globe) was introduced, Gouldener said, and seemed like an effective way of keeping money in the city instead of flowing out to distant corporations. It also would advance more environmentally friendly practices by encouraging local sourcing of goods, she said.

The group looked at successful local currency models — BerkShares in the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts, the Brixton Pound in England and Ithaca Hours — to gather best practices. They decided to make the BNote a one-to-one exchange with the U.S. dollar instead of using another form of value, like hours of labor, to support the currency.

They then held a fundraiser through the website Kickstarter to raise money for BNotes' first issue. Much of the funding came from the pockets of association volunteers, Gouldener said.

The only run of BNotes so far has been in ones — the bills with Douglass, the Maryland-born abolitionist — and fives. The fives are purple and green and display a rendering of Edgar Allan Poe on one side and a raven in flight on the reverse.

The bills are printed on heavy stock and have sequential serial numbers printed in foil to prevent counterfeiting. The association printed $110,000 of BNotes; about $34,000 of which are in circulation, Gouldener said.

When the BNote launched in April 2011, 55 businesses agreed to participate in the local currency network. From the beginning, the organizers saw a diverse business network as critical to keeping the BNote afloat.

"The strongest approach seemed to be to get business owners on board because they're the economic backbone of the community," said Jeff Dicken, chairman and one of the founders of the Baltimore Green Currency Association.

The criticism of local currencies is that they're just not that effective. Ed Collom, who studies the phenomenon, said it's true that such bills aren't circulating widely enough to make a big impact in local economies, but he thinks they're worth trying.

Collom, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine, said local businesses are more likely to spend money locally — on an accountant, say — than national chains that handle purchases from a central location. Money that encourages people to buy from independent businesses can have a positive effect, he said.

"The movement is growing right now," Collom said. "Time will tell."

In Baltimore, the businesses that accept BNotes choose how to use them. Most will take BNotes in lieu of U.S. dollars for an entire purchase. Others have put ceilings on the amount of a purchase that can be made with BNotes. At Cafe Hon on the Avenue in Hampden, for instance, a diner can use BNotes for 20 percent of a meal and must pay the remainder in dollars.

About a dozen businesses that accept BNotes also act as points of exchange. The Green Currency Association calls them "cambios."

When consumers first buy the local currency, they receive 11 BNotes for $10, providing a 10 percent incentive to shop locally. Those U.S. dollars then go into a bank account as backing. If someone were to go to a cambio and request U.S. dollars for BNotes, the 11-to-10 conversion rate would apply.

Otherwise, businesses and consumers are supposed to treat BNotes as dollar equivalents, even for tax purposes. It isn't illegal for entities other than the federal government to print paper money, though minting coins is.

"We're growing rapidly, and we've had nothing but positive response," Gouldener said.

After two years, the number of businesses that accept the BNote has tripled and extended beyond Hampden, where most of the first businesses in the network were located.

There are brick-and-mortar businesses like attorneys, counselors, florists and schools now in the network. There also are citywide services, like plumbers and musicians, and businesses that are owned by Baltimoreans but exist only online.

"The BNote program has worked well for us," said Flynn, who spends the BNotes his bar accumulates at Belle Hardware in Bolton Hill and for services such as getting the pub's computer repaired.

The Ale House has been using BNotes since July 2011, when it opened. Flynn said he's seen the currency's usefulness grow as more businesses have joined in. One of the local brewers who supplies his bar is considering accepting Bnotes, he said.

Flynn said he would like to see BNotes transition to electronic form soon because cash can be cumbersome. Gouldener said they're considering a pay-by-text system, which avoids debit-style payments that feed money to corporations, like Visa and MasterCard, outside Baltimore.

Newcomers to BNotes, meanwhile, still are getting used to the current setup. The Woman's Industrial Exchange joined the BNote network in March and is ramping up its use of the bills, said Stephanie Halley, the exchange's executive director of mission services and external affairs. The exchange, on North Charles Street in the downtown, also became a cambio.

The local currency has been simple to adopt, Halley said, and once BNotes start flowing more steadily, the exchange will use them to buy practical items like office supplies.

"It's going to encourage us to use those dollars with the mom-and-pops instead of the larger suppliers," Halley said. "It encourages relationship development."

The BNote's success isn't making its organizers complacent. The association always is looking for ways to improve the system, Gouldener said.

The group would like to have another print run soon in denominations of 10 and 20, she said. "They're just handy."

The association is considering a design contest for the new denominations. Gouldener would like to see the new bills have female figures printed on them, she added.

Another thing that would help the system would be to have a paid staff person, she said. It's difficult for the volunteer group — there are fewer than a half-dozen members who do the bulk of the work — to count and deposit the money that's been exchanged at the cambios, manage communications with participating businesses and conduct education about the local currency system throughout the city, Gouldener said.

"We do find more often than not that people have at least heard of the BNote — even if they're not using it yet — and that's very encouraging," Dicken said, but there's still a lot of work to be done to spread the word about the BNote's purpose.

"It's a challenge to us to shake people out of their ordinary routine," said Dicken, who wants to see landlords and even the city government begin accepting BNotes.

"Ultimately, we want the BNote to be used for all local transactions that don't require dollars," he said. "That's how we make our city's economy sustainable."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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