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Friday, October 12, 2012

New local currency, UC Smiles, tries to keep money in community

Janelle O'Dea  

Janelle can be reached at

Paying for something with a Smile instead of a dollar may sound too good to be true.
UC Smiles, a new local currency program, will launch as a six-month pilot program Nov. 1 and aims to boost the community economy, strengthen area culture and encourage local shopping, according to a news release. Smiles are equal to $1 and are offered in increments of one, five and 20. Smiles can be exchanged for dollars at local businesses International Galleries, 118 Lincoln Square Mall, or Strawberry Fields, 306 W. Springfield Ave.
Seonmi Kim, one of the executive directors of UC Smiles and graduate student, had been researching alternative economic approaches, including local currency movements, and wanted to bring the idea to Champaign-Urbana.
“Based on my research and experiences, I learned that this town had perfect conditions for a local currency movement,” Kim said. “Because of the size of the community, it is not too big or too small; it is just the appropriate size to get a sense of community.”
The project is being funded by grants from the University’s Office of Public Engagement and Focal Point. The money will be used for printing costs and reimbursing businesses who accept UC Smiles.
“The purpose of this whole thing is education (and) trying to make people aware of what happens when you spend your dollars,” said Tracy Satterthwaite, executive director of public relations. “At big box stores, the money goes into corporate hands … (which) are already rich.”
Jack Wallace is the general manager at Strawberry Fields, one of more than 30 businesses accepting UC Smiles.

“Tracy (Satterthwaite) just brought us a great proposal,” Wallace said. “We thought, ‘Let’s get on board with it and just see how it works.’ It’s important to keep the money in the community.”
The benefits of UC Smiles have persuaded businesses such as Cool Cab, Siam Terrace and Sweet Dreams Mattress to accept UC Smiles. However, other businesses have decided they won’t use UC Smiles for now.
“We thought people who wanted to shop locally would do so, and we thought (the local currency) was an extra step. It seemed cumbersome,” said Joyce Day, co-owner of Sew Sassy in Lincoln Square Mall. “If it goes really well and people like it, we’ll probably sign on.”
Jake Dermer, junior in AHS, questioned the University’s contribution to the UC Smiles program.
“Why is the University giving out real money to print fake money?” he asked.
Although it will be challenging to change local residents’ shopping habits, Kim said doing something for local businesses is better than doing nothing.
“If we have 300 people who understand the value of local shopping, based on the population, we could build other community movements, too,” she said. “If 300 people can participate in alternative types of economic movements in this community, we can change this community.”
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