Plan Philly: Alternative Currency Aids South Kensington Development

Shoppers show off their haul from their Equal Dollars spending.

Cleaning up in South Kensington can have some tasty results—including discounted grilled cheese sandwiches or parlor pizza—as a new alternative community currency strives to reward residents giving back to their neighborhood.

“Equal Dollars are not a payment for labor,” said Sara Reed, community outreach and marketing coordinator for Equal Dollars Community Currency. “We give them out to our volunteers as a thank you for doing service.”

Nearly 300,000 Equal Dollars are in circulation, with approximately 2,400 members participating in the program. The notes feature images of social activist Maggie Kuhn and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke.

Sara Reed showcased the alternative currency, Equal Dollars, on Keepin' It Local Day.
Sara Reed showcased the alternative currency, Equal Dollars, on Keepin’ It Local Day.

The alternative currency can be used in other parts of Philadelphia, including the Food Market and Thrift Store in Germantown or the Treasure Chest Consignment and Gift Shop. An online marketplace has also developed to allow for easier trading of the currency.

However, Keepin’ It Local—supported by South Kensington Community Partners and the Girard Business and Arts Association—gave residents the opportunity to spend Equal Dollars at local businesses instead on Saturday.

“Equal Dollars are a way that we award our volunteers for helping out in the community and it’s also a way that we encourage them to shop locally and support local business,” said Dan Harvester, community engagement coordinator at South Kensington Community Partners.

“This brings together these two elements of community, which [are] civic engagement—where people are getting involved and being engaged in the life of the community—and also the economic sphere.”

Some participants of Keepin’ It Local Day used the community currency they had earned in a late March cleanup around messy areas near South Kensington businesses. For three hours of service, the volunteers each earned 25 Equal Dollars.

Customers were encouraged to spend their Equal Dollars locally at South Kensington businesses.

The 12 participating businesses ranged from café restaurants like El Cafeito to the children’s clothing store Kidde Kouture and even included a bridal boutique, Once Wed Again.

“We hope that people who got Equal Dollars for doing community service will try out new restaurants or a new business,” Reed said. She said the program intends to attract new customers and attention for local businesses.

Invitations to participate in the program had many businesses enthusiastic about the opportunity.

“I was really excited. I thought it was a great program to draw people overall,—not just for shopping—but also to the livelihood of improving the area,” said Jennifer Waszak, owner of Once Wed Again.

“It’s not just about them [customers] spending money…It’s about empowering the neighborhood and  showing that it has a lot of potential  to just continue to grow.”

After one business was asked to participate, the store next door was also intrigued.

“I thought it was a great idea—absolutely—and I think more places should start experimenting with them [Equal Dollars],” said Mike Ryan, a cashier at Trios Trattoria.

“I think it could help us–from a business stand-point—[in] getting people through the door, but then also just trying to provide something new for the community on a community-level.”

Equal Dollars staff explained the program to the community at 2nd and Thompson streets Saturday afternoon.
Equal Dollars staff explained the program to the community at 2nd and Thompson streets Saturday afternoon.

Most businesses had promotions for the Equal Dollars with customers using the alternative currency for partial payments of their purchases.

“The U.S. dollars that [businesses] are making are actually U.S. dollars that they may not have gotten if it weren’t for this program because these are brand new customers,” Reed said.

At the end of the day, Nicole Marcote from Quince Fine Foods said she had earned 50 Equal Dollars, while George Ofidis from George’s Pizza said that his business had received 60 Equal Dollars.

This local spending day was the first devoted to Equal Dollars in South Kensington, but it may become a continuing tradition.

“We are looking at this as kind of a pilot, so if this is successful in South Kensington, which we think it will be, we can work into other areas in the city as well as other neighborhoods,” said Mike Beitcher, an assistant at Equal Dollars Community Currency.

Equal Dollars can also be used an indicator for local community interest in businesses.

Resident Dan Abrams and sons Ben, 15, and Nathaniel,11, spent their Equal Dollars at Philly Kid Grafix, Kiddie Kouture and George’s Pizza.]

“You can now really track how many people are supporting these local businesses with this tool,” said Deneene Brockington, an Equal Dollars Director.

“For us, we were trying to drive our other members to try and come to this community to support local businesses [be]cause businesses like this…I’m not quite sure how many people would generally just stop in.”

Equal Dollars in South Kensington might possibly drive needed business to local stores.

“[Girard Avenue] has so much potential and unfortunately there are many businesses that open and close. The businesses that remain—we’re still lacking some foot traffic,” said Marcote.

“We can make this area more attractive for pedestrians and make it a destination. I think that we’re all going to benefit from this [Equal Dollars].”

Sign up to become an Equal Dollars member here.

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