Bernal's bucks

SF 'hood evolves its local currency program — into a Visa card?

The Bernal Bucks debit card: "Choosing Visa makes sense because is widely accepted by most merchants."

SHOPPING I stumbled into a small-town saloon, complete with a dingy 1950s cowboy mural over the door, a horseshoe-shaped bar, and the feeling that everybody — everybody! — knew the score better than I did.

Oh wait, I remembered. I'm just in Bernal Heights.

Normally I do not spend my Tuesday night on this hill, but tonight was an exception. Cortland Avenue was hosting a local business walk — the sidewalks lined with bustling young families and the fundraising popcorn stands of neighborhood groups. Paulie's Pickling was offering free tastes of its delicious jarred carrots and cauliflower.

I wasn't even on the hill for the sour samples. The evening also was meant to debut the Bernal Bucks card — an innovative, or at the very least, new take on the idea of local currency.

Bernal Heights is a neighborhood full of folks who don't have much call to go anywhere else. Harriet — the kindly woman whose hubby was playing fiddle in the bluegrass sextet perched cozily on the small stage to the side of the Lucky Horseshoe's front door — told me that they had lived in the neighborhood since 1971. They were well-acquainted with Lisa Marie Delgadillo, owner of the Horseshoe. In fact, Delgadillo's partner would be playing banjo during the next set with his band Shedhouse.

"I wasn't expecting this many people to show up," Delgadillo said. As luck would have it, that day was actually the soft opening of the tavern, which she had bought from an owner who had stocked the historic space with great blues music but "hadn't given it a good clean in 20 years."

"Bernal really has a tight-knit community of business owners and residents — it totally makes sense that they'd promote in this way. It's totally Bernal," she said, refilling my pint as Shedhouse launched into four-part gospel harmony.

Mind you, this was not the start of Bernal's local currency program. Bernal Bucks have been in circulation since 2009, initially as stickers users could affix to $1 bills. By spending them, users got a little more for their money — a free Fuji apple at Good Life Grocery, a free used DVD from Four Star Video, $1 off your drink at Stray Bar. The money went to the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center and other community groups. The nonprofits got funding, shoppers felt warm inside, and businesses passed along the stickered bills to the next consumer, encouraging more people to drop dough in the area.

But now there's a debit card, which eliminates the sticker step and acts like a frequent-flyer miles credit card. The more you spend, the more Bernal Bucks you rack up. You print out the bucks in $10 increments on your computer and spend them in your favorite local enterprise — on a screwdriver on Wild Side West's garden patio perhaps, or a quick knife sharpening at Bernal Cutlery. The whole shebang is accessible via computer: no fuss, no muss.

"How can we create a mechanism that gives us more control over our economic destiny?" asked Arno Hesse, co-creator of the program, in a phone interview. Hesse hopes the card will "create a reminder in the wallet and an incentive to do the right thing more often." He cited a study done on a similar shopping mall program that yielded a 24 percent income growth for business owners as a result of increased buying trips and ticket sales.

Hesse expects that "hundreds, hopefully even thousands" of Bernal Heights residents and workers will sign up. "We are optimistic that it will be a mainstream phenomenon. You don't have to have a degree in economics to jump on this program," he said.

He estimates that the program's participating companies receive 50 percent of the neighborhood's cash flow to locally run businesses.

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