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Creating a local currency in Riverwest

Dec. 8, 2008
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It is common knowledge our economy could use a jumpstart, a super-sized dose of adrenaline.

Community organizers in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee don't intend to sit idly by and hope things get better. They're grabbing the buffalo head nickel by the horns, so to speak, in hopes of getting their local economy rolling in the right direction. The neighborhood is considering adopting an innovative plan-production and introduction of a local currency.

"We're still in the planning stages," says Sura Faraj, a community organizer in Riverwest. "We don't have any hard numbers yet, but we're looking at this as a long-term project."

While creating cash for designated neighborhoods isn't an entirely new concept, it's definitely new to Milwaukee. Faraj was quoted in Newsweek magazine about Riverwest's plans. The currency is tentatively called River Currency and if local businesses get with the program, it could be used as cash at their respective establishments.

Faraj says she's concerned media outlets are putting the cart ahead of the horse, describing specific monetary ratios and incentives which have not yet been decided. The Chicago Tribune reported Riverwest was contemplating a 10-percent incentive per dollar. "That's not a hard number," Faraj insists. "We do hope this will boost the economy, and define what it means to shop locally."

She says the community is connected by its businesses which ultimately affects the health of the community. Faraj says stimulating local shopping will help the environment as neighborhoods wouldn't have to rely as heavily on shipments from around the county and the world.

Participation would be open to any and all businesses. Faraj says this includes any business that has a stake in the future of the neighborhood. "It keeps the local business in business," Faraj said. "We'd like to see people shopping at our local stores, not Wal-Mart or Home Depot. We'd like to see them buy their beer at Linneman's."

Last year Faraj ran for alderperson in her district and the River Currency was part of her platform. "There are a lot of smaller towns that have local currencies." There are estimates of as many as 2,000 local currencies worldwide. "We want to build a model that is successful. We don't want to slap something together so we're going to plan and do it right," Faraj said.

Faraj says there are different ways in which the money could be introduced to the system. "We want to work with community organizations to do that. We want to have some kind of launch." Faraj wants to include all of the East Side in the usage of River Currency, not just Riverwest. "It gives economic opportunities to those who might not get them through traditional means. It can help immigrants, ex-offenders."

According to Faraj, our economy is broken and we need alternatives to make it work again. "It's the old thinking and mentality that got us into trouble in the first place."

She says there have only been a couple of meetings regarding the currency, and they've gone well. "We've got some great people on board," Faraj says. "We're always looking for more people to help. Businesses, people with large networks, community organizers."

Faraj insists this isn't a partisan or politically charged issue. "I'm looking forward to all political backgrounds to get involved, all across the spectrum."

Jim Linneman owns Linneman's Riverwest Inn and says if the currency can be explained logically; it could be a great idea. He says he's heard about the currency through the grapevine, but says he hasn't heard from Faraj specifically. "I need to know, as any businessman needs to know, how it's going to benefit my business. Will it work in a bad economy?"

Linneman has owned his establishment for sixteen years and says he is considered one of the leaders in the Riverwest neighborhood. He loves the area and thinks it's a wonderful place for students of UWM as rents are still affordable. The idea of a Riverwest currency appeals to him, but he needs more information.

"If you're going to have your own currency, you have to ask who the bank will be," Linneman says. "In theory, it sounds great."


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