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WATCH: Ithaca Keeping Local Currency Home for the Holidays

In the next phase of development Ithacash will begin producing paper currency, starting with i$1 and i$5.
In the next phase of development Ithacash will begin producing paper currency, starting with i$1 and i$5.


In a quiet second floor office on the Ithaca Commons, Ithacash founder Scott Morris and staffer BélineFalzon sit on opposite ends of the table with laptops open as they fold sheets of paper into thirds. The two are preparing maps for “The Holiday Hunger Game”-- a treasure hunt created by the regional currency start-up and designed for shoppers to support downtown Ithaca businesses during the holidays.

Consider Ithacash a fresh spin on Ithaca Hours, the oldest and largest local currency system in the United States, which has declined in popularity since its inception in 1991.

“Simplicity is key. We are Ithacash. Ithaca Dollars are the currency. It’s one to one with the U.S. dollar. No need for conversions or head math,” says Morris.

Perhaps the biggest enhancement over Ithaca Hours is that, for now, Ithacash is digital-only. Morris claims it’s often faster than paying with a credit card.

“I can, from halfway back in the line, pre-pay for my breakfast and then I go up to the line, I make my order that’s my usual, I already know the total, and I say ‘I texted over the payment.’ He checks the phone – done!”

With a free Ithacash online account, Ithaca and Tompkins County residents can use a linked cell phone (no smartphone required) to make or take payments via text message. Users can load U.S. dollars which will be converted to Ithaca Dollars (i$) once the money hits the account. To help keep the system running, Ithacash encourages residents who can afford it to sign up for a paid account with an annual fee. And all merchants accepting Ithaca Dollars are charged a flat rate of 2% on each sale. 

You can send and receive Ithaca Dollars via text message from a cell phone linked to your account.
You can send and receive Ithaca Dollars via text message from a cell phone linked to your account.

New ideas aside, the Ithacash mission is the same: to promote local economic development. Businesses who receive Ithaca Dollars must spend them on local goods and services. And while non-local businesses are welcome to accept Ithaca Dollars, those companies need to spend them on goods and services in Ithaca for the currency to be economically sustainable.

Since the launch of Ithaca Dollars in August, a total of 93 businesses, freelancers and non-profit organizations accept the currency. And there are roughly 320 active Ithacash personal accounts.

Morris credits his team for the company’s upward climb toward success. He works alongside two other full-time employees, a number of part-timers, and he has some staff on-call.

“This is not something you can run on volunteer labor. A lot of people think this is just something that a group of volunteers around a kitchen table can take care of and they’re dead wrong about that,” says Morris.

Many months of construction on the Ithaca Commons became a nuisance and drove shoppers away last year, so Morris says he wanted to create a fun way to bring people back to stores.

“The Holiday Hunger Game” asks that shoppers find a hidden present in participating stores and get a sticker on their map from the cashier. The more stickers on their map, the more Ithacash they earn. And players can earn bonus stickers if they support one of five local charities by donating food items. The game runs until Dec. 23, 2015.

Feeding Ithacans coincides with Morris’ 2016 goal: a focus on food security. Ithacash plans to establish a better food network and act as a farm-to- fork connector, ensuring that everyone has enough to eat. 

“This will help us expose more people to what’s going on in the community and even help them start using the currency in a way that they may not even realize.”

Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News in 2015 as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York and also does general assignment reporting. Sasha-Ann is the host of Arts InFocus, WXXI-TV's weekly arts and culture program. She is also a fill-in host and regular contributor to Need To Know.