LAWRENCE, Kan. – Free State CU is helping the local economy in this college town 20 miles from Kansas City by circulating $3 bills. The bills, as well as scrip in one- and $10 denominations, are designed to help the regional economy. The credit union is the repository for REAL Dollars, a local economic development program created by the Lawrence Trade Organization (LTO). "We support that kind of stuff our members are into," said Mark Kasson, president and CEO of the Credit Union Group, Free State's Lenexa, Kans.-based parent. "I was really inspired by it." Free State is a 27-year-old credit union with 1,700 members and $3.5 million in assets. It is one of four affiliates of the Credit Union Group. Kasson said Free State keeps the locally circulating currency in its vault. "We treat it like traveler's checks, a guaranteed currency," he said. "It can be exchanged for goods and services (in Lawrence)." The REAL Dollars program was created in 2000 to encourage spending at local businesses rather than at national chains. The currency is valid at area businesses that agree to accept them. Naturally, it is the local businesses, not the Wal-Marts, that recognized the scrip. "The credit union here has been very supportive of local economic development activism," said Dennis Highberger of LTO, "so they were very receptive (of the REAL Dollars)." Highberger, a local lawyer, is a former employee of the credit union. Before getting involved, the credit union made sure it was on firm legal and regulatory ground. To be safe, it does not exchange U.S. currency for the scrip; it only stores it and accepts it from members. REAL Dollars is one of about 21 similar programs in the United States and Canada, according to the E.F. Schumacher Society of Great Barrington, Mass. It was inspired by author E.F. Schumacher's book, "Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered." The society supports the alternative currency movement as a part of its mission to apply the "the values of human-scale communities and respect for the natural environment to economic issues," according to its Web site. "To have local economies become diverse, supporting the small businesses that make up a regional economy" is critical, said Susan Witt, executive director of the society. "The participation of a financial institution will make it convenient for businesses to trade in the local currency; they don't need two systems of deposit." Witt said Alternatives CU in Ithaca, N.Y., participates in a similar program. Crane & Co. prints the currency on "tree-free" cotton paper. The colorful notes include images of people with local ties. Author William S. Burroughs, a native Kansan who lived in Lawrence during the 1980s and 1990s until his death in 1997, is on the $3 bill. On the face of the $1 bill is Pelathe, a Shawnee Indian, and poet Langston Hughes is the $10 bill. Hughes grew up in Lawrence. The long-term goal is to have enough in the currency's credit union account to loan out for local needs. So far that hasn't happened. Less than $10,000 of the $70,000 originally printed is in circulation. "It needs a shot in the arm," said Highberger. "Our problem is most businesses don't have any opportunity to use cash." -


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