October 19, 2006

Circulation of HOURS Expands

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For many students, the most interaction they will have with Ithaca HOURS is the small notice that they are accepted at Collegetown Bagels. However, outside the world of Cornell, what most students see as “Hippie Money” has been featured in Forbes magazine and is seen as symbolic, community-building and even a model for the rest of the world. At least, that was the sentiment last night when the President of the Board of Directors of Ithaca HOURS Stephen Burke ’79 reported on the status of the “biggest and oldest local currency system in North America” at the annual meeting.

Burke described one international visit where an official from Japan’s Ministry of Finance stopped by Burke’s business, Small World Music. The official was in the United States for the weekend and was only able to meet with Burke for a few hours before leaving for Washington D.C. to meet with Alan Greenspan.

Such meetings are not uncommon.

“I’ve met a lot of jet-lagged Japanese people,” said Burke, explaining that Japan actually encourages local currency.

When asked why Japan does this, Burke answered bluntly, “They’re smarter than we are.”

Created in 1991, an Ithaca HOUR is worth $10 and is accepted by 900 participants. Burke estimates there are over $120,000 worth of HOURS in circulation. The currency was created to keep money local and to build the local economy, but, according to Burke, it has had other consequences as well.

“There’s a symbolic value to the HOUR,” said Burke, explaining that when a customer uses an HOUR in his store, a common link is established and a conversation is started. He does not see the same kind of connection when someone pulls out a VISA.

Most Cornell students, however, might not share Burke’s enthusiasm since the program has no formal ties with Cornell.

“It’s a tricky thing,” said Prof. Ori Heffetz, Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Heffetz sits on the Board of Directors and sees Ithaca HOURS as a small model of the economic systems he describes in class. While Heffetz acknowledges that the size of the student population in Ithaca make it a sizable market for Ithaca HOURS, he cites the temporary nature of the Cornell student.

Burke, saying that he never came down to the Commons when he was an undergrad in Ithaca, does not see much overlap in the world of an Ithacan and the typical Cornell student. You won’t find HOURS at Target, Wegmans or Bear Necessities, and work-study won’t offer to pay HOURS as part of a salary.

“We only approach local businesses,” said Burke. “[HOURS] are part of the arsenal of small businesses.”

If Wegmans ever approached him, he predicted there would be a heated debate in the Ithaca HOURS community.

Until that debate, HOURS will remain in the local businesses as long as they keep circulating. Overall, the program seems to be expanding, as a larger number of businesses are willing to take in more HOURS. ABC Café, seeing the program as a good way to attract business, now accepts 100% HOURS. Gimme! Coffee, on the other hand, has stopped accepting HOURS because they have too many stockpiled.

“It takes a little bit of work,” Burke said.

GreenStar is also worried about its stockpile, but Burke thinks that these problems will not happen if businesses make the effort to use them and regulates how many they take in.