Marin County, Calif., Had 'Altcoin' Long Before Bitcoin Came Along

The trade token is not exactly a competitor to bitcoin; it is a single coin whose value is tied to that of the dollar.

by Kristen V. Brown, McClatchy News Service / April 3, 2014
Marin County, Calif., Altcoin Coastal Marin Fund

With all the chatter over bitcoin, Dogecoin and other players in the world of alternative currencies, Point Reyes Station resident Richard Kirschman would like to remind Bay Area residents that Marin County has had its own "altcoin" since long before it was trendy.

Kirschman, president of the Coastal Marin Fund, is of course talking about the Coastal Marin Trade Token, a $3 brass coin in circulation in the 10 towns of coastal Marin County.

The trade token is not exactly a competitor to bitcoin, the decentralized digital peer-to-peer payment system that has recently attracted increased attention. For one, the trade token is not exactly a "currency" - it's a single coin rather than a system of money, and its value is permanently tied to that of the dollar, rather than standing on its own. And unlike crypto-currencies, the goal of the trade token falls a little short of reimagining the global flow of currency.

But there are about 16,000 trade tokens in circulation in Marin County, where they're accepted by many retailers.

The coins have been in circulation for two years and were conceived as a way for the Coastal Marin Fund, which helps support local nonprofits, to raise money. The fund "mints" the coins at a cost of $1 each, but businesses "exchange" them for the $3 value, meaning the fund banks $2 for every coin it puts into circulation. The coins are marketed largely to out-of-town visitors.

"It hopes to tap into the over 2 million visitors who pass our way each year," said Kirschman. "If just 1 in 10 visitors takes home just one coin, that would produce $400,000 for our nonprofits."

Of course, the small-denomination local-currency approach is not unique to the trade token - within Marin, the town of Fairfax has its own $3 coin, the FairBuck, supported by the town and its chamber of commerce to promote spending locally.

The coastal Marin coin was designed by wildlife artist Keith Hansen. Kirschman said it's also a source of local pride.

"Locals give them away as stocking stuffers at Christmas, and show them to family and non West Marin friends, etc.," he said. "And I suppose it does indeed focus attention on keeping things local."

Like bitcoin's believers, Kirschman hopes that the trade token will one day be a ubiquitous presence in Marin - even if it's not backed by the local government.

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle