Ithaca HOURS: "In Ithaca We Trust"

Sometimes, business as usual doesn't work. For years, Upstate communities have turned to big businesses to come in and "save the town." It's a seductive vision, after all, as it only takes convincing a single great company to build their next big factory or, even better, headquaters, in your town to fix all of the problems. New jobs, tax revenues and overflow into local businesses all result. At least, that's the story they sell us.

Many Upstate towns were built on the noblesse oblige of their great corporate patrons. I think of my hometown and how, for decades, it was ruled over by George F. Johnson and the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company. The empty shoe factories that tower over my childhood should have taught my town leaders a lesson about the folly of "putting all your eggs in one basket," as my grandmother would say. Unfortunately, it appears that not everyone listens to my grandmother. Today's corporations force our communities to compete, elminating whatever tax revenues might be gained while still demanding public services; at the same time, the arrival of big companies like Wal-Mart actually drives down local wages and destroys the local businesses that might have benefitted from the arrival of new wages to the area. And yet, local governmental officials continue to buy their line. A wise man (or perhaps a woman) once said that the truest sign of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting the results to change.

If our governmental officials cannot see the truth that is decaying in our brownfields, perhaps there are things we can do without them. True community revitalization is not convincing that one special company to come in a build a telemarketing call center. It is a slow, difficult, even painful process with many fits and starts, but it is the only way that does not prostitute our villages, towns and cities to distant masters.

In Ithaca, a small group of people have taken matters into their own hands. Lead by community newspaper editor Paul Glover, these folks have truly broken the mold: they created a money for Ithaca. The Ithaca Hour is
"...a local currency system that promotes local economic strength and community self-reliance in ways which will support economic and social justice, ecology, community participation and human aspirations in and around Ithaca, New York. Ithaca Hours help to keep money local, building the Ithaca economy. It also builds community pride and connections. Over 900 participants publicly accept Ithaca Hour for goods and services. Additionally some local employers and employees have agreed to pay or receive partial wages in Ithaca Hours, further continuing our goal of keeping money local..."

Each Hour is a printed bill valued at 10 United States Dollars, the hourly living wage in Ithaca (hence, the name "Hour"). There are also a Half Hour ($5), Quarter Hour ($2.50) and Eighth Hour ($1.25). The program is a non-profit organized on the basis of membership. Anyone can become a member at the cost of $10 US, and every year each member is sent two Hours ($20) in the Mail. Businesses join and post a sign proclaiming that they will accept the currency, which they treat as cash. Obviously, it can only then be spent in local businesses or to pay local people. The program offers 0% interest loans to local businesses and grants to help Ithaca charities, in Hours of course. The best part is that it circulates continuously within the community; it is never sent to pay the CEO's salary in Bentonville, or to cut down the rainforest, or to move the factory south of the border.

In an earlier post, I wrote:
"People will only give up on Wal-Mart and Chinese products when we can offer them a different, and more healthy and meaningful, way to live. In the end, the institutions of environmental and social destruction will wither as their true power, the faith of the people, is sapped away from them."
The folks up in Ithaca have taken to heart this lesson and are taking direct action to protect their way of life. The Hour itself has become an expression of community identity, many Ithacans that I have met have told me about the uniqueness of their currency and take great pride in using their money. The Hour itself is decorated with images of local animals, interesting buildings and natural landmarks.

The visionaries in Ithaca have given us a blueprint for success and example of how creativity and not a bit of courage can be used to create something more meaningul, and perhaps more lasting, than the next Wal-Mart. For those wishing to repeat the success of the Hour in their own community, Mr. Glover has written a book entitled Hometown Money: How to Enrich Your Community with Local Currency, which can be found here. More information can also be found from the Schmacher Society's section on local currency.

Posted by Jesse

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