German teenagers invent a currency

It's not meant as a protest against Europe's new currency. And central bankers aren't exactly quaking in their wingtips. But teenagers in Prien, a small town in southern Germany, have introduced a new regional money.

The chiemgauer (pronounced KEEM-gower and named for the mountainous Chiemgau region near the Austrian border) is the creation of six teenage girls and their teacher, who launched the currency to help bolster the sluggish local economy. With more than $50,000 worth of bills changing hands and circulation growing at 10 percent per month, their seven-month experiment looks like a success. It's also serving as a lesson in the intrinsic value of money.

"I tried to make the bills simple enough so that they would not be overly expensive to print, but complicated enough to prevent counterfeiting," says Anna Seibt, the 16-year-old who designed the new bills.

Chiemgauers come in denominations of one, two, five, 10, and 20. Each bill has a serial number and two signatures. A security strip prevents counterfeiting and iridescent stamps indicate the date limiting the validity of the new money.

The chiemgauer is the brainchild of Christian Gelleri, a high school teacher at Waldorf, a private school in Prien. Mr. Gelleri has long been interested in monetary systems and helped establish a model for regional currencies with Bernard Lietaer, a Belgian author and monetary expert who lives in the US.

Gelleri was teaching the concepts of money to his 10th-grade students when the idea of an alternative local currency for the region was born.

"I wanted to try out a model with my students here in the school," says Gelleri. "They in turn wanted to transfer theory into practice."

Under Gelleri's guidance, six teen girls designed, printed, and circulated the chiemgauer.

Since its introduction seven months ago, nearly 50,000 chiemgauer or approximately $58,000 have been circulated. Bundles of 50 chiemgauer, sorted by denomination and held together by a rubber band, are available at the Waldorf School and at several other locations in Prien. Those who want to use it pay 50 euros for a bundle and spend them in the 80 local shops that accept the chiemgauer.

The businesses include cafes, food markets, and clothing stores. An Indian restaurant was one of the latest to sign up.

"The chiemgauer was introduced to keep the money here in the region," says Julia Kollmannsberger, who owns the Prien Regional Market and immediately agreed to accept the chiemgauer. "Our policy is to sell products grown or produced here.... Why buy apples from New Zealand when you can get apples from the farmer down the road?"

Her market sells apples, potatoes, homemade cheeses and sausages, as well as traditional arts and crafts produced in the area. Currently Ms. Kollmannsberger estimates 5 to 10 percent of her sales is in chiemgauers. At the end of the day, she tallies up the chiemgauers she's earned and turns them over to a student who picks up the day's take. Chiemgauers are exchanged for euros but pay a 5 percent commission: Two percent goes to the students for administration of the program; 3 percent goes to a local charity the merchant chooses. The rest is transferred to the merchant's bank account. Five percent is tax deductible.

"We are glad to take 5 percent less because we know where it goes. It benefits local institutions," says Kollmannsberger. She says there is also an advertising effect and that many residents prefer to shop where they can spend chiemgauers.

Business has been good despite the economic slump that has been felt throughout Germany, says Herbert Riffel, owner of the Alpenblick restaurant and a newcomer to the program. "I like the idea. It's good for the community and brings people together."

As its circulation and the number of businesses that accept the money grows, other communities are paying attention. Thirty towns have written to Gelleri for advice on launching similar projects.

"The chiemgauer is not a competition for the euro," Gelleri says. "The euro is important for Europe, but it doesn't meet all the needs of all Europeans - so the idea was to create a additional monetary instrument that supplies [regional] needs."

Similar programs may soon be in operation in the rural Allgäu region of Bavaria or in communities on the shores of Lake Constance. The students who started the program still have two years before graduation and have started an apprenticeship program for those who will carry the currency on.

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