A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Berkshares Strengthen Western Massachusetts

BerkShares come out of a long history of experimentation with local currency and models for increased economic self-reliance in the Berkshires. Some examples of currencies used in the early 1990s include: Deli Dollars, issued by deli owner Frank Tortoriello to finance the move of his business from one location to another; Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes were jointly issued by two Great Barrington farms, The Corn Crib and Taft Farm, to finance start-up in the spring, and could be redeemed once produce was ready to

be harvested; “Berk-shares” were issued by merchants in downtown Great Barrington to reward customers for shopping in locally owned stores; BerkShares in their current form were launched in September of 2006.

   Echoing the local currencies widely used throughout the early 1900s, BerkShares serve as a tool for community economic empowerment, and development toward regional self-reliance. BerkShares are meant to maximize the circulation of goods, services, and capital within a defined region, thus strengthening the local economy. Commonplace during the early 1900s, local currencies are once again being recognized as a tool for sustainable economic development. The currency distinguishes the local businesses that accept the currency from those that do not, fostering stronger relationships between the responsible business community and the citizens of the region. The people who choose to use the currency make a conscious commitment to buy local, and in doing so take a personal interest in the health and well-being of their community by laying the foundation for a truly vibrant, thriving economy.

    Money can be a powerful decision-making tool. BerkShares turn currency into a tool for community education and empowerment in the Berkshires, while celebrating the landscape, heroes, and artists.

   “I like to think about keeping money local as a way of building community wealth,” says Alice Maggio, executive director of BerkShares Inc. “If you’re spending money with your neighbors and they are too, it’s not going to a far-off place, so the whole community becomes stronger. And all of those people who you’re spending the money with become stronger, which benefits you as well.”

    BerkShares are cash. Anyone can purchase BerkShares at participating bank branches at an exchange rate of 95 cents to 1 BerkShare. BerkShares can then be spent at participating businesses at face value; 10 BerkShares can be used to make a purchase worth 10 dollars.

“We welcome BerkShares,” says Sarah Eustis, owner of the Red Lion Inn, “and were very early adopters because we believe that using local currency is an excellent way to cultivate and nurture our region’s businesses and resources, which then makes it more attractive for people to live here and move here and work here.”

  The currency is only accepted by locally owned businesses, so when you spend BerkShares you know you’re supporting a business that is rooted in the community. Locally owned businesses have been proven to be better for the environment and the economy than their non-local counterparts. They tend to spend more money with local suppliers and service providers, they keep profits local, and they pay more local taxes. In addition, they contribute to the diversity of our cities and towns, have higher environmental standards, and increase social equality and political participation.

    BerkShares shine a light on participating local banks, local businesses, and local nonprofit organizations, raising people’s awareness of the essential role they play in the economic and social well-being of the Berkshire region.

   BerkShares are for the people and by the people of the Berkshires. BerkShares Inc. is a place-based, democratically structured nonprofit organization with membership open to all residents of the Berkshire region. Members elect the board of directors, ratify major decisions, and support the organization through their annual membership dues of 25 BerkShares or 25 dollars, while also acting as ambassadors for the currency.

“What’s so nice about BerkShares is that they’re telling stories about the community through the currency,” says Beryl Jolly of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. “That’s what is so important to celebrate, and to share with visitors who don’t know about Community Supported Agriculture, W.E.B. DuBois, or the other stories that are so rooted in the history of the Berkshires.”\

     Along the same lines as a CSA, organizers at the Berkshares are working on a relatively new concept called Community Supported Industry—an initiative aimed at creating a culture of support for entrepreneurs interested in more labor intensive, small-batch local production. “If we are going to support local businesses,” says Maggio; “we need an ethos about local money, including building young entrepreneurs.”

  In order to inspire young entrepreneurs, BerkShares Inc. created a program called Entry to Entrepreneurship for 14 to 25 year olds. The students do a presentation each year with their business idea. They work on a business plan during the class, with many mentors and guests guiding the way. It’s not a pitch, not a competition, just sharing their ideas with the world. Many of the graduates (15 this year and 5 last year) are moving forward on their ideas. They each get 200 BerkShares at the end of the class as a reward for their hard work, and as a way for them to start using the local currency.

    “We can’t leave success up to the individual; it’s a community focus, so inspiring entrepreneurs is important,” says Maggio. “Our population is getting older and it’s declining. We want to keep young people here by teaching them how to do business here.”

    The banks that exchange BerkShares are all supporters of the Entry to Entrepreneurship program, and it’s even supported by BerkShare business members.

Exerpts from Berkshares.org used with permission.