North Fork Shares Wealth with Its Own Currency

The Fesno Bee - Bethany Clough - Something unusual is happening in the mountain town of North Fork: People
are printing their own money.

Hoping to boost the Madera County community's economy and keep all of its
wealth from rolling downhill to Fresno, a group of residents has created a
local currency. Organizers also hope the project will encourage neighbors to
become more engaged with one another.

"This really begins to tie you into the local economy," said Josh Freeman,
who runs a computer-repair business and founded the local currency. "You
have to spend it locally, and you can't put it in the bank."

North Fork is joining a small but growing movement. Ithaca, a city in
central New York state, began its currency in 1991 and now has $100,000
local dollars, called "hours," in circulation. BerkShares are traded in the
Berkshire region of Massachusetts, where 400 businesses accept the bills and
13 bank branches exchange them for traditional dollar bills.

Local currencies are legal, as long as the bills don't replace money printed
by the U.S. mint, and don't look like them, say local-currency advocates.

North Fork Shares are in their infancy. About 50 people are testing them
before asking local businesses and other residents to join in.

In August and September of last year, two dozen of them gathered in an old
barn to print 2,700 shares one at a time by hand on a 1930s letterpress. The
white bills with black ink are 3 inches by 5.5 inches. They feature images
created by a local artist of a local hummingbird, an insect and the Mariposa
lily.

One North Fork Share is worth $12. Other bills -- a half share and a quarter
share -- are also used.

The bills are just the beginning. The project also includes a website,
nfshares.com, on which residents list goods and services they're offering or
need. And participants hold monthly gatherings with food and music to
encourage residents to find out what their neighbors are buying and selling.

A steering committee makes some decisions, but the important ones are made
by consensus of the group, Freeman said.

To launch the currency, organizers are giving shares to participants for
attending the meetings. They also are selling them for the equivalent in
U.S. currency.

Freeman thinks North Fork is an ideal place for the currency to flourish, in
part because North Fork is isolated and it's struggling.

The unincorporated town, with a population of about 3,500, has never
recovered from the loss of its major employer -- a lumber mill, Freeman
said. In 1994, after half a century in operation, South Fork Timber
Industries closed the mill. The economic blow caused other North Fork
businesses to close and people to move out of town in search of work.

Today, many residents drive an hour to Fresno or 30 minutes to Oakhurst to
shop. Some say the one local supermarket is too expensive, or that they
can't get things they need in town.

If residents spend their money -- or shares -- in North Fork, that money
stays in the community and increases the buying power of the residents and
businesses there, Freeman said.

So far, residents have used the shares to buy homemade bread, plant starts,
computer work -- and even to have a truck pulled out of the mud.

Liz Threlkeld and Loren Weidman say money is tight and they would prefer not
to spend money on gasoline to make the 100-mile round trip to Fresno to get
discounted groceries.

Some participants have sold vegetables grown in backyards and eggs for North
Fork Shares. They hope to do more of that and get local farms involved.

"Our hope is to never leave North Fork and have all the food that we need,"
Weidman said.

Rah, a wood worker who goes by only one name, was paid in North Fork Shares
to build a loft bed and a desk underneath it for another resident.

For him, North Fork Shares are an environmentally responsible way of
shopping. He said he doesn't like the environmental effects of driving to
Fresno and buying tomatoes that have been trucked into a grocery store by
diesel trucks that pollute.

"Sustainability is a real key issue to me," he said. "It just isn't going to
happen if we have to truck everything in from Fresno."

As residents participate in the project, they've discovered others in town
have skills they didn't know about, giving them even more reason to spend
locally, Freeman said.

"North Fork has a very strong sense of community," he said. "This
strengthens that."

Economists say finding ways to keep money from leaving the local economy --
whether through local currencies, buy-local campaigns or other means -- is
important for a community to thrive.

"If you're able to keep the money inside, it grows," said Daniel Penrod, a
senior industry analyst for the California Credit Union League, a trade
association.

But local currencies have disadvantages, too. For example, asks University
of the Pacific economist Jeff Michael, where do participants save their
shares?

Freeman says that's not the point of North Fork Shares.

"What makes a local currency work is that you spend it as fast as possible,"
he said. "What you do is you put people to work, you don't sit on it."

Penrod questioned the basis of setting the share value. Traditional money
was backed by gold when it started and now by the federal government, he
said.

"To me it would be the equivalent of a guarantee being only as good as the
person making it," he said.

Freeman agrees, but said that isn't a problem, noting that such currencies
have proven they work in other communities.

"One can say it's backed by the willingness of people to use it," he said.
"All currencies are a means to exchange work, energy, goods, things like
that."

For now, North Fork Shares are in the testing phase. Just 170 shares are in
circulation. Organizers hope to work out the kinks and expand it to
storefront businesses and the rest of the community, likely next year.

And eventually, they hope it thrives enough that they can give out loans to
start local businesses, building the community even more.