By JESSE BURKHARDT
Tough times call for enterprising solutions.
White Salmon's Bruce Bolme is following that philosophy as he strives to help Washington Gorge Action Programs (WGAP) stay afloat in a difficult season.
Bolme, a member of the WGAP board of directors, pointed out that the agency's annual budget has seen big cuts for the past three years as it has lost funding from state and federal sources.
"Two years ago, WGAP had a $4 million budget," Bolme said. "Last year, it was $3.5 million. For 2011, it's projected to be $2.6 million."
WGAP is a Bingen-based agency that supports those in need in the community with food, shelter, heating, and other assistance. The service area includes Klickitat County and Skamania County.
Bolme said he is part of a fundraising team that is looking for creative ways to bring more revenue to the organization. One way Bolme believes WGAP could find help is through use of a local currency called "RiverHOURS."
"RiverHOURS is just another form of cash," Bolme said. "We're asking vendors if they would be willing to join a local currency co-op."
RiverHOURS currency was created to be used in the Gorge region -- Klickitat County, Skamania County, and Hood River County in particular. The concept was launched in May 2005 as a way to boost the economy by ensuring that money earned locally is spent in the local economy.
Bolme explained that community members have donated about $500 in RiverHOURS to WGAP in recent weeks. That got Bolme to thinking: How could he tap in to that market as a way to boost WGAP -- and by extension the overall area economy?
"People have donated their RiverHOURS to us, and we're trying to make sure we'll be able to use them," explained Linda Schneider, executive director of WGAP. "Our state and federal funds are in question. We're trying to be as flexible as we can so the agency can still exist. So when Bruce mentioned this idea, we told him to run with it."
Last week, Bolme began visiting with a number of local business owners to determine if any are willing to take 10 percent of their sales from WGAP in the form of the RiverHOURS currency.
"I'm letting them know WGAP is in a bind, and asking if they would accept 10 percent of their pay in RiverHOURS," he said.
But he knows it's not an easy sell.
"It's a change in the way of thinking for many vendors," he conceded.
Bolme said he would primarily focus his efforts on businesses in Bingen, White Salmon, Lyle, and Stevenson -- areas where the WGAP presence is strongest in the region.
Although not wanting to be identified, one local business owner explained that, while supportive of the goals of WGAP and RiverHOURS, many companies cannot trade in a local currency. Because RiverHOURS is technically not cash, it's therefore not considered an asset when it comes to auditing purposes. That makes it difficult for a large company to deal with.
Schneider said she is not optimistic about the future for service agencies that work to help people through hard times. Indeed, she noted that WGAP itself is feeling the hard times these days.
"Probably in five years, the social services we provide will not look the same as today. Our funding keeps going down," she said. "We've had funding challenges before, but this is the first time I've ever felt the agency as a whole is in danger. I'm hoping we can keep the agency together."
Schneider noted that WGAP has already been forced to reduce its hours.
"We'll open at 9 a.m. now instead of 8 a.m.," she explained. "And we've had to reduce our employee benefits."
Schneider added that the cuts may keep on coming.
"We'll wait and see what happens over the next few months, then make a decision about whether we'll be going from being open five days to four days a week," she said.
Bolme said he has been busy lining up potential WGAP backers willing to use RiverHOURS currency. On Saturday, he signed up the Inn of the White Salmon, Columbia Gorge Painting, and Multi-Use Ventures (the landlord for Second Hand Rose).
Earlier in the week, he scored other successes.
"I got a yes from Beneventi's Pizza, DJ's Repair, White Salmon Counseling, Columbia Cascade Pest Control, and Ken's Automotive & Towing," Bolme said. "I already had Mount Adams Chamber of Commerce and Solstice Cafe, because they are co-op members."
"We try to purchase as much as we can locally," Schneider pointed out. "These are companies willing to help us out."
One of the business owners who uses RiverHOURS -- Aaron Baumhackl of Solstice Cafe in Bingen -- said the local currency has provided a net boost for his business.
"Yes, I do think it's beneficial to the business," Baumhackl said. "It brings people in just as it encourages us to go to them for services."