Photo of the $5 "Ithaca Dollar" note unveiled on Thursday (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice.

To submit an alternative or dissenting viewpoint, contact me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Look, I hear you: The idea of “Ithacash” just sounds weird.

Ithacash is a new alternative currency for the Ithaca area. The basic premise is that rather than spending only U.S. cash — which can quickly be spent anywhere else in the country — Ithaca and Tompkins County residents will instead commit to using a currency that can only be used here.

The hope is that, by doing so, money will be less likely to leave the community. And, it’s similarly hoped, local trade will be accelerated — since Ithacash users will only be able to spend their cash at participating local businesses.

The logo of Ithacash, a new currency system for the Ithaca area

Almost everyone I talk to greets Ithacash with skepticism. And I really get that: The concept seems so different, so zanily “Ithaca,” that it would strain the limits of even what this liberal city is willing to go for.

Maybe it is. But on Thursday, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in downtown Ithaca’s Rev startup incubator (of which the Ithaca Voice is a member), a crowd of about 100 people showed up to express support for the Ithacash program.

“At first I was a little concerned,” said Darlynne Overbaugh, owner of the Life’s So Sweet Chocolates in Ithaca, about when she was first approached about accepting Ithacash.

“From a business owner’s perspective, not all my products come from local sources — so I have to still pay those bills.”

Overbaugh said her skepticism was gradually overcome, however, through lengthy conversations with Ithacash Founder and CEO Scott Morris. She now accepts the alternative currency on all but wholesale products — and said that, so far, it’s working.

“I love the opportunity that my staff could potentially take from Ithacash in addition to their regular salaries,” Overbaugh said. “This is real people, real money, real commerce.”

Overbaugh says it’s already working for her, at least in a limited way; she says she’s going to be using Ithacash to pay for tickets for her and her mother to see an upcoming show at the Kitchen Theatre Company.

What happened on Thursday: New note, launch of ‘Ithacash Online’

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ithacash on Thursday marked more than just a milestone for the business.

Ithacash also:

1 — Unveiled the design of its bill worth 5 “Ithaca Dollars.”

Local artist Annemarie Zwack, speaking at the ceremony, said that she wanted to represent a “cycle of abundance” on the new note — which features Ithaca’s Elizabeth Beebe, a pioneering social worker.

Photo of the $5 “Ithaca Dollar” note unveiled on Thursday (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)
Photo of the $5 “Ithaca Dollar” note unveiled on Thursday (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

2 — Ithacash also launched the digital “Ithacash Online” system, which includes the “same TXT2PAY feature as has gained so much popularity in the city of Bristol in the UK with the Bristol Pound,” according to a news release.

As of this morning, according to Morris, 83 businesses are ready to go with TXT2PAY — meaning Ithacash users can purchase goods and services at that these locations already, Morris says.

On the other side of the equation, about 300 individual residents have signed up for personal Ithacash accounts, Morris said.

Among the things you can buy with Ithacash, Morris says, are: Dinner at Atlas Bowl; drinks at Argos Inn; lunch at Luna Inspired Street Food; and treatments at Sea Change Chiropractic.

Officials: Ithacash still faces hurdles

Still, even local officials who support Ithacash say that it must overcome multiple hurdles before it can make a lasting impact on the local business community.

“The trick to this — and whether it will work — is in having a critical mass of local businesses, and varied types of businesses, on board and participating,” says Jennifer Tavares, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.

“Are there a broad enough base of businesses and services — retail, restaurant, supply stores? There are certain things you won’t ever be able to use Ithacash for, probably, so you need a broad enough base accepting it for it to really work.”

Tavares said there’s lot of reason to be optimistic. “I think it’s a really great project that will hopefully have really significant benefits to the community,” she said.

Like Tavares, Mayor Svante Myrick said he thought Ithacash still has many minds to change.

“The thing I’ve been hearing the most is that it’s not going to work,” Myrick said at the ribbon-cutting event. “There’s skepticism … ‘they won’t accept it; they won’t buy it’ — I’ve been hearing that a lot.”

Myrick congratulated Ithacash for overcoming the skepticism it had to this point, and compared criticism of the alternative currency to the Ithaca Commons renovation — projects he says were difficult but ultimately worthwhile in the face of opposition.

“I want to congratulate (Morris) for having the wisdom to do something impossible … and for choosing to do it in a place (Ithaca) that does these things regularly,” Myrick said.

How will we know if Ithacash is really working? “The key metric of success is the circulation of the currency,” Morris said. “The way that we measure that is velocity: How many times on average does an Ithaca Dollar change hands over the course of a year? If we can outpace the U.S. Dollar, then our currency is helping people get things they want and need faster than they could with dollars alone.”

Morris said he stands that there’s still significant doubts about his product.

“I think that’s a fair assessment: I welcome people’s skepticism,” he says.

“But I feel excited, and really proud of the Ithacash team for the time and effort they’ve put in … We didn’t just cross the finish line. We just crossed the starting line.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.