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D.C. Communities Print Their Own Money

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Larry Chang, creator of the Potomac, a local currency for the D.C. area.
Rebecca Sheir
Larry Chang, creator of the Potomac, a local currency for the D.C. area.

By Rebecca Sheir

Update: We've received word that Larry Chang's favorite coffee shop has started accepting Potomacs. Qualia Coffee on Georgia Avenue (NW) is now the second local business to deal with the local currency.

Larry Chang started making "Potomacs" on his inkjet printer this spring, in denominations of one, five, ten and twenty.

The blue-and-white One Potomac bill, equivalent to 95 U.S. cents, is a little bigger than Monopoly money, with pictures of the U.S. Capitol, the Potomac River, George Washington and Marvin Gaye, one of Chang's favorite D.C. natives. Other bills feature local celebrities Frederick Douglass, Pierre L'Enfant and Harriet Tubman.

"The dollars will always be legal tender and rightly so," Change says. "But a huge portion of the wealth that we generate here leaves the area. We basically just want to hold on to some of that wealth and build our local economy."

And that's the thing. Big-box stores won't take a local currency like the Potomac but local businesses will, once they climb on board. So far, Chang's only signed up one: The Potter's House Bookstore and Cafe on Columbia Road. Chang says most of the 200 Potomacs in circulation are used as souvenirs.

"Some people have bought them just to stick up on their fridge or wall. You know, people have found them very attractive," Chang says.

But pretty pieces of paper are one thing and functional pieces of currency are something else. Or so says Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland.

"There's the issue of what do you do with them," Morici says. "It's okay for a few vendors around town, but most people don't limit their purchases to those few vendors, nor can they. Does Comcast take Potomac Dollars? Does the local tax collector? Never!"

Morici says vendors that do take local currency can face the same issue. "Communities are no longer self-contained. Most businesses have to pay outside their community for the basic raw materials of doing business. They need real dollars to buy the products they sell you."

And they can't do that with a glut of Potomacs in their cash register.

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