June 10, 2009 12:00

Can a local currency get Greensboro out of the recession?

Signe Waller Foxworth serves her guests a midafternoon snack of locally grown strawberries in the dining room of the 1930s-era log house she shares with her husband on Greensboro’s Pinecroft Road. “You can say I just celebrated my 70 th birthday if you say most of my hair is brown,” she says. One of her guests,

Alyzza Callahan, requests that her age be precisely noted as 20 rather than alluding to her age by noting her status as a Guilford College student. She doesn’t want to stereotype college students as being a particular age. “We have a half a century between us, but in our thinking we’re like this,” Foxworth says, drawing her middle and index fingers tightly together.

“That’s what happens if you keep living,” she adds. “You grow old. But it’s better than the alternative.”

Foxworth has had a personal brush with the most infamous episode of the city’s history, when her second husband was killed by a Klansman’s bullet in a deadly confrontation in the Morningside Homes housing projects in 1979. Since then, she’s struggled to come to terms with Greensboro, many of whose leading citizens vilified Foxworth and her antiracist colleagues for their provocative rhetoric. Ultimately, Foxworth decided to call Greensboro home. Foxworth has been doing a lot of reading about banking and currency lately. She was sitting around the table at the Beloved Community Center — operated by the Rev. Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson, fellow survivors of the 1979 tragedy — at a Wednesday meeting open to all comers. The agenda is open at those meetings, so Foxworth mentioned that she had been thinking about the idea of launching a local currency.

She favors the term “complementary currency,” lest anyone get the wrong impression that the idea is to supplant the US dollar. Callahan was familiar with the concept, having visited Ithaca, NY to research the “Ithaca Hours” currency, and she knew immediately that she wanted to work with Foxworth to launch a Greensboro project.

A Bonner scholar, Callahan is spending her first summer in Greensboro, and receiving a modest stipend to work on the currency project and pitch in on a community garden at the Beloved Community Center. The Ithaca “hours” currency was launched in 1991 in the midst of another national recession. The Motor City has Detroit “cheers,” a kind of scrip designed to keep wealth inside the local economy of a city that has been in freefall. And last month, the Triangle town of Pittsboro launched the Plenty with the backing of Capital Bank. That means town residents can exchange US dollars for plenties, which they can spend at participating stores. And Foxworth and Callahan hope local business owners, elected officials and ordinary consumers will “get in on the ground floor” on a local currency initiative in Greensboro. They’re inviting anyone with an interest in the project to a meeting at the Hive on June 15.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the wealth of a community,” Foxworth says. “The real wealth is that the people have the talent and ability to produce with their hearts and hands and all that…. The money of Wall Street and the money banks issue — they produce money out of nothing. When they’re paid back, they receive interest in return. For that to work, the economy has to continually expand and the environment is degraded.” Local currency might sound like a crazy idea, but Foxworth and Callahan are counting on the fact that since last fall masses of people have become introduced to job loss, business failure and real-estate devaluation to open their minds to the notion that they can keep wealth in Greensboro by intentionally circulating money through local businesses.

They know their project will be more likely to succeed if a local bank agrees to exchange dollars for the local currency, which is a kind of guarantee, and they need buy-in from restaurants and small businesses so that consumers have choices. They know the effort will require cooperation and trust. After all, they’ll need to set up a board for the purpose of determining how much currency to issue to meet the demand for goods and services. And while a bank would incur a cost in keeping account of the local currency, they think it would pay off in good public relations. They are gambling that small businesses would see the hassle of dealing with a second currency would be greatly outweighed by the benefit of having consumers spend locally. And businesses would also benefit, Foxworth and Callahan argue, by being listed in a directory.

That could include ordinary people who offer all kinds of services; writers and editors, accountants, landscapers, babysitters and fresh produce growers are a few that are mentioned. When a dollar is spent at a local busipage 21, Green cont’d ness, 83 cents stays in the local economy, Callahan says. In contrast, when a dollar is spent at a multinational corporation such as McDonald’s, only 13 cents stays in the local economy.

To be the devil’s advocate, I say, doesn’t your currency lose value when you’re forced to spend it locally with someone who may not be able to produce a good or service as cheap as, say, a garment maker in Bangladesh or an editor in India?

“‘Money is the bottom line’ is the root of all evil,” Foxworth retorts. “So that is the devil’s advocate. There needs to be some competition. Efficiency is important locally. That’s best controlled inside a community where that can be discussed.”

The Greensboro Currency Project will hold an informational meeting at the Hive, at 1214 Grove St. in Greensboro, at 7 p.m. on June 15.