Alternative-currency system gaining converts

Fourth Corner Exchange brings barter system popular in the UK to Whatcom County

Londoner Francis Ayley brought with him to the the States a system based on the popular North London Local Exchange and Trading System (LETS) program, and founded the Fourth Corner Exchange. Members barter for goods and services through the system using a currency of time dollars.

Heidi Schiller
   Imagine a corner sidewalk where vendors and craftspeople, health professionals and contractors trade goods and services without spending a cent.
   Now imagine it is online.
   The Bellingham-based Fourth Corner Exchange is an alternative currency system that allows members to trade goods and services via accounts on its Web site, It began informally in 2002, when Francis Ayley, a London transplant, followed his American girlfriend back to the states and found himself in Bellingham.
   As a Londoner, Ayley helped start the North London Local Exchange and Trading System (LETS) program and worked with LETS’ systems for 17 years — using them to help start a business and eventually working as a paid LETS consultant.
   An international movement that gained traction 25 years ago, the LETS model, which Fourth Corner is based on, has roots in the Great Depression of the 1930s when unemployed laborers created trading systems to survive the country’s economic crisis.
   In 2004, the Fourth Corner Exchange started operating formally, at first with only about 20 members. The following year, the group grew to around 100 members, and within the last six months, membership has exploded to almost 500 members who live in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, as well as Port Townsend.

How it works
   Membership is open to anyone and costs $45 a year. Potential members must attend an orientation meeting and sign an agreement before they are given an online account balance that starts at zero.
   Members may then purchase goods or services, or offer their own goods and services, via “offered” and “wanted” lists on the Web site.
   All transactions are paid for with time dollars — one time dollar is equal to about $10 in goods and services — and most transactions happen online, although members can print out time-dollar checks if they wish.
   For example, a massage therapist could offer her message services to other members, who would pay her in time dollars credited to her account. She could then use those time dollars to obtain other goods, like a printer for her office, or services, such as those provided by a handyman to fix a leaky faucet.
   The Fourth Corner Web site lists 18 categories for trade, including “business and administration,” “gardening and yard work,” and “health and personal” sections, and offers approximately 5,000 listings at any given time.
   Members can spend time dollars before they have earned them, resulting in a negative balance in their account. Ayley calls this a “commitment,” rather than a “debt,” and says those commitments do not accrue interest or any other punishment.
   “People ask how we regulate that, but I’ve never seen anyone rip the system off,” he said. “This way of offering and gaining services rebuilds community. There is a high level of trust and goodwill involved.”
   Members are also allowed to view other members’ profiles and accounts — a built-in social watchdog.
   Jeanne Azure is a retired senior living on a fixed income. Fourth Corner has helped her with home improvements since she joined in 2005.
   “I heard about all these things being offered like knife sharpening and this and that, and being on fixed income, I thought it would be a great way to meet people as well as to get services,” she said.
   With time dollars she has earned from driving other members to SeaTac, Azure has purchased computer help, house cleaning, moving help, furniture refurbishing and knife sharpening.
   In addition to the services, she appreciates the community experience that Fourth Corner provides.
   “I like that it’s a lot of people doing amazing things.” She said. “(Members) also meet once a month for potlucks, which are really nice.”
   According to an online directory sponsored by the E.F. Schumacher Society — an organization devoted to alternative-currency development — 10 alternative-currency programs exist in the United States as of 2006.
   The oldest of these, Ithaca Hours, which is based in Ithaca, N.Y., has about 500 members, 40 percent of which are businesses.
   In a region of low wages, in a town of 30,000 residents — many of whom are under employed — the program brings a stream of revenue in the form of local currency that assists the area’s economy, Ithaca Hours president Stephen Burke said.
   “Because the local currency is not accepted by chain stores, it helps local businesses,” Burke said. “Ithaca is one of the few towns in the regions with a strong and attractive downtown.”
   The program in Ithaca is notable for its strong business involvement, something Ayley wants to improve in the Fourth Corner Exchange, he said.

Reaching out to businesses
   Since its origin, Fourth Corner members have exchanged 23,911.41 time dollars, the equivalent of $239,114 worth of goods and services, and the volume increases daily, Ayley said.
   Recently, several Bellingham businesses have started accepting time dollars as a portion of customers’ payments. Those business owners can use the time dollars to purchase goods and services for their business.
   For example, members can purchase Mallard Ice Cream with time dollars. Owner Ben Scholtz said about 10 customers a month use time dollars at his store.
   In July, Stephen Trinkaus, owner and general manager of Terra Organica, began allowing Fourth Corner members to spend up to 1 time dollar, or $10, at his grocery store per month.
   He has used those time dollars to buy office equipment, graphic design work, landscaping services and to pay employees.
   But Trinkaus has had to temporarily stop accepting the time dollars until more of his vendors and service providers begin accepting them. That’s why Trinkaus urged Ayley to begin a push for more local-business participation.
   Ayley embraced the idea, and is now launching a campaign to recruit more business members. So far, Fourth Corner, which is incorporated (Ayley calls it a social- welfare business that does not seek to make a profit), has done almost no advertising and has relied predominately on the success of its members’ word-of-mouth promotion.
   This winter he will begin marketing membership to businesses through ads, brochures and one-on-one meetings with local business owners.
   He said that businesses would benefit not only from the extra time-dollar income they can spend on items or services they may not have the cash on hand for, but will also be exposed to a large membership base of potential customers.
   Trinkaus said that membership in the exchange has brought in many customers who use time dollars and ultimately spend more at the store than their allotted monthly time-dollar quota.
   Scholtz agreed, saying, “At the very least, it is a form of advertising or marketing. It’s a way to introduce your business to a group of people.”
   But he also said there is evidence that alternative- currency programs strengthen local economies.
   “(Alternative currencies) give an initial insurance against economic fluctuations in the main currency,” he said. “If you experience a temporary period of high unemployment, it allows people who have valuable skills in communities to exchange goods and labor.”
   During the great depression of the 1930s in the United States, about 1,000 alternative currency systems sprang up around the country, Ayley said.
   “It’s really the ultimate buy-local campaign,” Trinkaus said. “You know, with Trader Joe’s coming in, they’re not going to accept time dollars, so by definition, time dollars have to stay in the local economy.”

Here are a few examples of listings of goods and services’ you can find on Fourth Corner Exchange’s Web site (

In the “offered” listings:
   Carpentry — Timber frame, stud frame, some roofing; houses, porches, decks and auxiliary structures. Some concrete work. Some joinery.
   QuickBooks and Quicken setup and troubleshooting — I can help you set up    QuickBooks or Quicken, teach you how to use it (to suit your needs), and help untangle any existing problems or confusion.
   Speaking coach — I am an experienced speaker and presenter and am currently president of Bellingham Evening Toastmasters. I would love to help you improve your speaking, speechwriting and presentation skills.
   Canon i550 Color Printer — Trusty Bubble Jet color printer — works great. (I graduated to an all-in-one!) Includes partially used cartridges and 2 color replacements. 2TD and $10.

In the “wanted” listings:
   Accountant — I’m needing someone who can take care of my tax returns (business and personal). Needs to be someone with experience!
   Business cards — I need a logo created and cards printed. I already have the basic idea and only need an artistic eye to bring it to life.
   Tool Box — I am looking for a small tool box. Something with about four drawers, and a flip-top lid. Large enough to hold lots of tools, but something that will still fit in the trunk of my car.



Related Stories