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New Bank Dispenses Local Currency

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BURLINGTON -- The Burlington Bread Bank, a tiny office in the Wing Building at 1 Steele Street, doesn't look like a financial institution. Not a reputable one, anyway. The cramped space beside the bike path houses a desk, a microwave, a rusty, teal-colored mini fridge, and a few dilapidated benches and chairs that have seen better days.

But don't let its humble appearance fool you -- this outpost is on the cutting edge of a national movement to bolster local economies. From 2:30 to 6:30 on Thursday afternoons, beginning May 11, the site will offer visitors a chance to trade in their U.S. dollars for Burlington Bread, the Queen City's very own currency. One dollar is the equivalent of one "slice."

The colorful slices, printed on leathery paper made from recycled blue jeans, are circulated by the Burlington Currency Project. BCP organizer Amy Kirschner, an AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer, notes that spending Bread at one of the 60 or so Vermont businesses that accept it is the ultimate way to buy local. That's because all the money will recirculate here, rather than out of state. "It's an action, as opposed to a slogan," she says.

Other parts of the country have their own currencies -- New York's Ithaca Hours may be the most famous example. Others include Bay Bucks in Traverse City, Michigan, and the BerkShares of Massachusetts. Bread has been around since 1998, though this is the first time the Currency Project has opened a public storefront to dispense it. Kirschner estimates roughly $20,000 to $30,000 worth of slices are already in circulation.

Kirschner will be the banker, though she hardly looks the part. One recent May afternoon, the University of Vermont Natural Resources graduate student opens the bank door wearing a Magic Hat T-shirt, a black skirt and flip-flops. She says she hopes the space will entice people to drop by to chat and learn more about local currencies.

The office won't actually be a bank, per se -- you can't sign up for an account yet, or apply for a loan. You can't even get your money back after exchanging it for Bread. Once you've banked your cash, it'll be deposited in an account at Opportunities Credit Union, and the Currency Project will use it to pay the rent on the office and buy supplies. "You can't buy U.S. stamps with Bread," Kirschner notes dryly.

You can, however, spend Bread for 20 percent of your tab at American Flatbread, or for 25 percent of your purchase of take-out at SugarSnap. You can also pay with Bread for half of any purchase at Gardener's Supply Company, in Burlington's Intervale.

And Bread doesn't just work in Burlington -- a handful of businesses outside the city accept it, too, such as The Book Rack and Children's Pages in Essex. Owner Elaine Sopchak competes with big booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and she knows the appeal of shopping local. Bread, Sopchak says, is "a fabulous concept. I really like being a part of it."

But she adds that it can be difficult for business owners to spend. "I have a big wad of Burlington Bread in my safe," she explains. "There's really nothing my business needs that I can buy with Bread."

Kirschner hopes that will change. She says more outreach and advertising is on her to-do list. She's been focused recently on "capacity building" -- getting the bank set up, putting volunteer management systems in place, recruiting people for the board of directors. There are now 15 people on the BCP board, including developer Melinda Moulton, City Councilor Carmen George and Gardener's Supply founder Will Raap.

Kirschner is also working on a daylong conference at Champlain College on June 8 called "Complementary Currencies: Money for Local Living Economies." Bernard Lietaer, an author and academic who helped develop the euro, will be the keynote speaker. Ithaca Hours creator Paul Glover and BerkShares founder Susan Witt will also attend. Registration is $45 -- and yes, you can pay with Bread.

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