OPINION: Community Correspondent
OPINION: Community Correspondent

Bernal Bucks

Dan Carlin's picture

The cheerful storefront signs marked “Bernal Bucks welcome here!” have become a familiar site along Cortland Avenue, the main shopping artery of Bernal Heights. Each sign promises a different perk for spending Bernal Bucks—cash marked with a Bernal Bucks sticker—the rewards ranging from a free pastry at Moonlight Café, to a discounted t-shirt at Fit Bernal Fit, or simply a free apple at Good Life Grocery. But according to the initiators of this project, which since launching in October has already recruited 70% of businesses in Bernal Heights, these little shopping incentives are only the beginning of a much bigger plan to transform the neighborhood’s economy.

Bernal Bucks is what we really want to do on training wheels,” says Arno Hesse, who helped conceive and launch the initiative with fellow Bernal resident Guillaume Lebleu. Both come from banking backgrounds—Hesse in strategy and marketing, Lebleu in software development. Both say the idea for Bernal Bucks came directly from having “front-row seats” for the financial meltdown, as the banking industry, disconnected from its effect on neighborhood economies, pummeled communities through disinvestment, foreclosures, and restricted lending.

Disturbed by what they saw, Hesse and Lebleu imagined Bernal Bucks—regular American cash labeled with the coupon-like Bernal stickers—as a first step in taking back one community’s cash flow and creating a more accountable financial infrastructure.

The theory is simple: the stickers create an incentive for people to “recycle” money within Bernal, generating greater wealth within the neighborhood. Second, because the stickers can be acquired by donating to select Bernal charities and non-profits, it creates a flow of funds to the social sector as well.

The Bernal Bucks guys aren’t tracking numbers, but local merchants say it’s working. They have noticed a trickle of customers redeeming the bills but would like to see more. “It’s a great idea, but I don’t know why there aren’t more in circulation,” says Frankie Chamberlain, manager of Good Life Grocery on Cortland. He estimates only one or two Bernal-marked bills comes through the register per week.

Veronica Rodriguez, manager of Cole Hardware on Mission, says more than 60 customers have come in to her store to redeem their reward (a free 4-packs of CFLs) since October, and is expecting much more to come. “It’s going to get huge,” she says.

Lebleu and Hesse don’t dispute the relatively low numbers, but say the volume of bills in circulation isn’t necessarily important just yet. “We’re basically trying to raise awareness,” says Lebleu, “that where you spend your money matters.” According to several retailers in the neighborhood, Bernal Bucks has started a conversation among customers and business-people alike. Next on the agenda: help people realize that where they deposit their money matters, too.

Buoyed by the popularity of the move your money movement, Hesse says Bernal Bucks is in negotiation with local banks and credit unions to create a Bernal debit card, which they intend to launch mid-year. They’re hoping this will help them reach the 20-30% of Bernal businesses typically handling larger transactions, and thus reliant on cards.

In addition to transferring funds from large banks like Chase and Bank of America to smaller, more accountable local banks, Hesse says a portion of card transaction fees would go to a local loan fund or local charities, giving the neighborhood further control over its money. Hesse concedes they have set ambitious goals, but they aren’t expecting overnight results, either. “It’s a low-tech, simple, not-perfect approach. We’re not ready to claim victory yet.”

Ultimately, Hesse and Lebleu hope the eventual success of Bernal Bucks will offer a playbook for other neighborhoods and local economies seeking to do likewise. They aren’t quite there yet, but Hesse says he is happy to convert businesses and shoppers one at a time. “The conversations usually starts with ‘what?’,” laughs Hesse, describing the typical response to his pitch, “but they usually ends with ‘yeah!’ From ‘what?’ to ‘yeah!’: that’s our goal.”