'Currency' for local merchants unveiled

URBANA — A darter, a kestrel and a morel will grace the front of new local money issued by the UC Smiles program.

The program, which hopes to boost local business through the issuance of local currency, will begin circulating the bills by Nov. 1.

The money — in denominations of one-Smile bills, five-Smile bills and 20-Smile bills — will be exchanged on a Smile-per-dollar basis, with people using Smiles like dollars at participating merchants.

So far, 40 local merchants — many in Urbana and some in Champaign — have signed up to be involved.

Consumers have incentives to use Smiles, rather than dollars, because many participating merchants plan to offer discounts and special services to Smile users.

Supporters of the local currency say UC Smiles will keep more money in the community and create more local jobs. They also say buying local goods results in less long-distance shipping, yielding an ecological benefit.

At an unveiling of the currency design Monday at Urbana's Lincoln Square, directors of the program showed:

— A one-Smile bill featuring a fish called a darter on the front and an 1883 photo of the Old Settlers Society on the back.

— A five-Smile bill featuring a bird — the kestrel — on the front and an 1891 picture of the Champaign-Urbana street railway on the back.

— A 20-Smile bill featuring a morel mushroom on the front and the Alma Mater sculpture on the back.

Seonmi Kim, one of four executive directors for UC Smiles, said research has shown that less than 40 percent of money spent at big-box stores remains in the community, while 70 percent of money spent at locally owned stores stays local.

There have been several efforts around the world to launch local currencies in hopes of boosting locally owned businesses. Among the most successful has been BerkShares, used in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts.

That program, started in 2006, has more than 400 businesses participating and more than 2.7 million shares issued.

Tracy Satterthwaite, an executive director handling public relations for UC Smiles, said more than $97,000 in UC Smiles have been printed at a cost of less than $3,000.

Urbana City Council member Dennis Roberts did design work for the bills, according to a UC Smiles release.

Beginning Nov. 1, consumers can exchange dollars for UC Smiles at Strawberry Fields, 306 W. Springfield Ave., U, and at International Galleries at Lincoln Square Village.

People can also get the currency at a UC Smiles party scheduled for 4 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway Ave., U.

Satterthwaite said the group has been working with two banks on possible participation as exchange centers. But as of Monday, neither bank had committed to the program.

Satterthwaite predicted it would probably take two to three years for UC Smiles to take hold. The program will be evaluated during a six-month pilot period, with business owners being contacted for both positive and negative feedback.

Business accepting Smiles will be asked to give Smiles back as change — when customers are willing to accept them.

Businesses will also be asked to use Smiles to pay suppliers and employees — again, if they're willing to take them.

Satterthwaite said UC Smiles has tried to make the bills difficult to counterfeit, using a special ink and two different printing processes.

UC Smiles has received grants from the University of Illinois Office of Public Engagement and from Focal Point. UC Smiles also hopes to use Kickstarter, an online fundraising program, to raise $5,000 by Nov. 15, but not everything has been put in place for that campaign.

UC Smiles has two other executive directors, Jeonghwan Choi and Jeff Smith, as well as an advisory board made up of Mike Doyle, Dale Gardner, Sue Grey, Sten Johansen, Wynne Korr and Salim Rashid.

The program is sponsored by the University YMCA, the UI School of Social Work and the UI Office of Public Engagement. The Urbana Business Association is a partner in the program.

For a list of some participating merchants and more information about the program, visit http://www.ucsmiles.org.

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Bulldogmojo wrote on October 09, 2012 at 4:10 pm

I think we just found a replacement for the Greek Euro

CULater wrote on October 09, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Is it april 1st? This must be some kind of cruel joke. I've seen this local money system before, it won't work. And Wal-Mart tried to pay their employees with Wal-Mart money only to be used at their stores, it was deemed illegal in MEXICO. Not that anyone is crazy enough to accept their pay in smiles, but, the idea that you would even suggest that to an employee during these economic times is laughable to say the least. The icing on the cake, Asking for money on kickstarter. This isn't a charity or some amazing invention, this is a community out of ideas.