An Ithacan reaches into his or her pocket. They are about to buy a movie ticket at Cinemapolis, but instead of grabbing a United States issued $10 bill, they reach for their phone. They pull up a new text message, which is linked to their online Ithacash account, type “Pay Cinemapolis 9.50” accompanied by their individual pin number and press send.
Ithacash or “Ithaca Dollars”, a new regional currency, will debut this May. Founder Scott Morris originally came to Ithaca in hopes of exploring what was happening with Ithaca Hours, a similar system that revolutionized local currencies when it launched in 1991.
“I wanted to understand what we could do at the local level to protect ourselves against economic crises,” Morris said. “I realized there was a great opportunity to create a new version and take it even further both conceptually and in terms of scale.”
A total of 65 businesses have signed on to be a part of the inaugural program. Morris has hopes of reaching 100 by its launch. In addition to the text payment options, bills in increments of one, five, 10 and 20 will be released this summer.
Although some residents and businesses still possess Ithaca Hours, the system has since become a defunct currency in the area. Paul Glover, founder of Ithaca Hours, transferred the operation of the system to the elected board of directors before moving out of town in 1999. He said Ithaca Hours lost its steam because no one was hired to manage the currency on the street each day, by promoting, facilitating and troubleshooting the circulation of cash.
“The need for local grassroots economic development, has become even bigger, not only in Ithaca,” Glover said. “The need for local currency to facilitate connections that create new markets is greater than ever before.”
Phylissa DeSarno, deputy director of economic development for the city of Ithaca, said Morris will provide the hands-on management this endeavor needs. He has been in contact with DeSarno, the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and local merchants to unify the concept in the area. DeSarno said she believes Ithacash is a good idea for the local economy, but doesn’t believe results will show right away.
“I think its popularity could grow, but it’s not anything that will come immediately and change the way merchants have been doing business,” DeSarno said. “People get into routines and habits and they are hard to break.”
DeSarno compared the concept to when credit cards were first released, because of the unfamiliarity of the idea. But she believes if any place can embrace this new type of pay system, it’s Ithaca.
“Any university or collegetown has a certain rebelliousness,” she said. “There’s always that search for what’s next. We’re certainly not a corporate town, we have a lot of entrepreneurs who certainly could embrace this new-found way of doing business.”
Deirdre Kurzweil, owner of Sunny Days of Ithaca, a downtown business specializing in local products, hasn’t completely signed-on to the program, but believes she will. She is in favor of the concept because of what her business represents.
“I’m supportive of it from the perspective of how it’s going to keep money within the community,” Kurzweil said. “Our whole business is founded on being supportive of the community including where its located, what we’re doing here and that we pay a living wage. This is just another thing we can do that supports the community.”
Morris said Ithacash and similar currencies are effective at insulating wealth within communities.
“Our Main Street is competing with a lot of other Main Streets for a very limited amount of money,” he said. “You have to understand that either Main Street or Wall Street has access to that money and when it goes to Wall Street it doesn’t really come back at the same rate.”