3 Cheers for Detroit's Local Currency

Detroit, some say, is a weird but cool blend of big city and small town. Detroit Cheers is making it weirder,  smaller and cooler.

Detroit Cheers is a new local currency -- the city version of exchanging grain for flour or darned socks for a loaf of bread. Only it's more like beer for pizza, or housewares for a bike tune up.

With the goal of supporting a local small economy, a trio of Detroit business owners -- John Linardos from Motor City Brewing Works, Tim Tharp from Foran's Grand Trunk Pub and Jerry Belanger from Park Bar -- have put up their own cash to back a new local currency, or scrip, called Detroit Cheers.

The scrip concept was fairly common during the Great Depression (the city itself issued scrip in the 1930s) and is making a resurgence across the country these days. The basic premise is that participating businesses (listed below) accept Cheers and will make change from it --  in regular old fashioned dollars, scrip, or some combo of the two.

Consumers who use the scrip are making a defacto pledge to buy local, since only businesses within the city accept it.

And that's the point, says Greg Gedda, the owner of Union Street in Midtown, one of the businesses that will accept Cheers. "Because it's the city, it's for everyone, and this is our town to promote," he says. "This is the Detroit economic stimulus package."

Cheers 101

Put plainly, Cheers are locally issued currency accepted at select local businesses. Belanger, Tharp and Linardos each put up $1,500 to back the $4,500 worth of Cheers in circulation. The backing money is held in reserve at a bank. As backers are added, they'll release more Cheers. So one Cheers equals one dollar. "It's as good as the U.S. dollar … ironically, it's no better," Belanger says.

Dave Mancini of Supino Pizza in Eastern Market signed on to the Detroit scrip concept as soon as he heard about it, partly for his own benefit. "It's free promotion -- that sounds really selfish," he says. But as he surveys the scene at the Park Bar, he says, "I spend money here all the time, so I might as well take it."

That interconnected community of Detroit small business owners seems to be growing stronger, thanks to concepts like Detroit Open City and now, Cheers. "It means something to us ... that we're connected," says Belanger. "Spending Cheers is almost like giving a secret handshake."

So is this about warm and fuzzy, or is there real economic merit to a local currency? The possibility is certainly there. Berkshares, which are accepted at more than 350 businesses in southern Massachusetts, were launched in the fall 2006. There have been more than 2 million circulating to date, with five different banks and a total of twelve branch offices now serving as exchange stations.

Local backers have hopes for a similar strength. "This is not a novelty thing," says Linardos. "It will grow as we move forward."

Roll-out report

Cheers were released into circulation earlier this month at the Park Bar. The party came off like a family reunion, with small business owners chatting about Final Four profits, clean and safe issues, and small successes while sipping on pints of Ghetto Blaster.

At one point, Belanger barked Cheers-accepting business names into a microphone, doling out free Cheers to guests in exchange for a promise that they will spend them at a business they hadn't yet patronized.

As Mancini watched a dozen people picking up Supino-bound Cheers, he shook his head, saying, "He's a saint."

But you know what they say about saints: They sometimes have clay feet. Belanger admits that the Cheers roll-out, while enthusiastic, hasn't been flawless. "We've been overwhelmed with the response, with people who want to use Cheers -- almost too much," says Belanger. "It's been bad in a good way or good in a bad way."

One issue has been with the paper that Cheers was printed on. The trio of backers chose a cotton rag paper for durability, and bought a ream of it -- no cheap purchase. Then they had to print the stuff.

"In keeping with spirit of the whole idea, we could have gone to a printer from out-of-state that has already done this for other municipalities, where we wouldn’t have had the learning curve," says Belanger. "But that would have been kind of contrary to our sustainability, local thing -- so we're going through a learning curve."

The worst-case scenario that Belanger fears is having to completely reissue the scrip. "To have that expense all over again ... it's not always just roses!"

Not to end on a sour note, Detroit Scrip seems to have some legs -- not yet with the mainstream, but with a community of people who tend to already spend their money in the city. And the reserve bank looks like it will be growing: Union Street is preparing to join as a backer. "I'm bowled over by everyone wanting to be involved," says Belanger.

Detroit Scrip FAQ

Q. Is it legal?
A. Yes. Scrip dates way back -- it was issued as wages in early mining towns and was even accepted as payment for Federal land in 1835, thanks to President Andrew Jackson. The concept is experiencing a comeback in recent years. Traverse City, The Berkshires in southern Massachusetts and Ithaca, New York are just three of the many places around the country with some form of local currency. The E.F. Shumaker Society has lots more info on local currency.

Scrip may not attempt to look like Federal money, and anyone holding some must be able to exchange it for equivalent Federal legal tender at any time -- i.e., it must be "backed." To do that with Detroit Scrip, visit Foran's Grand Trunk Pub, Park Bar or Motor City Brewing Works and turn it in for the green stuff.

The businesses only ask that if you are planning on exchanging a lot -- say, a few hundred -- of Cheers at one time, you give them a heads up so they can make sure they have enough cash on hand.

Q. How do I spend it?
A. Simply use it as you would any ol' three dollar bill! Cheers is printed in denominations of 3. If your pizza tab comes to $8, you can pay it with a U.S. fiver and a Cheers. Or three Cheers and get a dollar back. Or, you can pay for a $2 beer with a Cheers. and you'll get a buck back in change. Or you can use a U.S. $5 bill, and then ask for one Cheers back.

Q. Where do I spend it?
A. These businesses accept Cheers. Check the web site for updates.

Restaurants and Bars
Q. How do I get it?
A. Go to the bank! Which, in this case, is Foran's Grand Trunk Pub, The Park Bar or Motor City Brewing Works. You want $40 bucks worth? Hand over two twenties and you will receive 13 Cheers and a US dollar.  Also, when you are at any of the aforementioned businesses that accept Detroit Scrip, you can ask to receive all or part of your change in Cheers.

Q. Why should I participate?
A. As Liz Blondy, owner of Canine to Five Detroit Dog Daycare puts it simply: "Karma."

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Model D development news editor, and owner of Wheelhouse Detroit. She will rent you a bike in exchange for Detroit Cheers. Send feedback here.


Park Bar owner, Jerry Belanger, explains how to spend Detroit Cheer

Stack of Cheer

John Linardos from Motor City Brewing Works

A great turn out at the Park Bar to support small local economy

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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