Ardmore Initiative prints its own money to boost shopping

You hear it all the time: The U.S. government can just print money to paper over its financial woes, but states and cities can’t.

Actually, they can. What is called “scrip” was quite common during the Depression, issued by cities, counties, companies and other organizations. Just last year, California issued IOUs to carry it through its annual budget crisis.

Now Ardmore’s business improvement district hopes its Downtown Dollars will provide the economic stimulus needed to promote shopping in the Main Line community.

That’s right. The Ardmore Initiative is printing its own money in a pilot effort that will launch May 3. We’re talking actual paper money in denominations of 10 and 20 Downtown Dollars that a consumer can buy for half the face value. And yes, it’s legal.

In essence, it will cost half as much to shop or dine out at participating merchants within the boundaries of the Ardmore Initiative using Downtown Dollars, which will be valid for 90 days from the date of purchase.

The idea came from the chairman of the business group, John A. Durso Jr., who’s a vice president at St. Edmond’s Federal Savings Bank. He’d heard of some Detroit businessmen trying to encourage spending in their distressed city by creating “Detroit Cheers” currency. Durso also was familiar with various online efforts to provide discounts at local stores and restaurants.

But he knew, too, that Ardmore’s locally owned small businesses weren’t in a position to be offering big discounts after a nasty winter and the slow economic recovery for Main Streets everywhere.

“The federal government’s stimulus hasn’t trickled down to small business,” he said.

As a banker, Durso knows a little something about money. In February, he asked the Ardmore Initiative, which focuses on improving the commercial district, to subsidize the creation of a local currency that could be used at participating merchants.

It’s not unheard of. Besides the Detroit effort, so-called community or local currencies have sprouted and faded in various parts of the nation over the years, mainly backed by community groups, including “BerkShares” in western Massachusetts and “Ithaca Hours” in upstate New York.

The Ardmore Initiative board approved the idea. Within a few weeks, they’d settled on a dollar design and security features. Ardmore’s Hayden Printing agreed to print the money.

It’s very much an experiment that’s capped at $10,000. The Ardmore Initiative is subsidizing the program using $5,000 from its budget and will spend $1,000 creating the actual currency. Consumers would contribute $5,000 buying the Downtown Dollars.

Merchants aren’t required to supply any discounts, but they may wind up doing so, according to Christine Vilardo, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative.

So far, about 70 businesses within the district have agreed to accept Downtown Dollars. Harry Althouse, who’s run an antiques store called Harry’s Treasures & Collectibles on Lancaster Avenue for 13 years, is one of them. While he hopes to see customers using Downtown Dollars in his shop, Althouse said he intends to buy some to spend at restaurants in town.

Backers hope the discounted dollars will prompt shoppers to spend more money in Ardmore.

There are some notable exclusions from the program: nearly any retailer that’s part of a national chain, and Suburban Square shopping center, which is not located within the Ardmore Initiative’s boundaries.

Between May 3 and June 6, people will be able to buy Downtown Dollars at the Ardmore Initiative’s offices weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Individuals are limited to a maximum purchase of $200 for the duration of the program. And no change will be given in a transaction in which only Downtown Dollars are used.

The business group will have all the rules, as well as the names of the participating merchants, on its Web site when the program launches.

Will it work? The Ardmore Initiative will know when the whole thing’s over by Sept. 6 whether it wants to bring Downtown Dollars back for the holiday shopping season.

But I have to admit, it’s a daring effort, a far cry from the kinds of activities, such as planting flowers and hanging street decorations, that are usually done by business districts.