- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

A day on the town with a pocketful of Sacagaweas. It's easier said than done.

Three months after the U.S. Mint released the new dollar coin, some banks still do not carry them, and many retailers say they have yet to see the currency in their stores.

"We have asked for some new dollar coins but still have not received them," said one teller yesterday at the First Union Bank on Connecticut Avenue near Chevy Chase Circle.

The Citibank across the street had just seven of the coins left after a run by customers who apparently scooped them up as collectors' items and gifts.

Nearly 500 million of the distinctive gold-colored coins have been put into circulation since January, and the U.S. Mint is churning out about 6 million a day.

The coin is slightly larger than a quarter and bears the likeness of Sacagawea, the young Shoshone Indian woman who joined the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 and, with a baby in her arms, guided the explorers across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The Mint, which has spent $40 million on an advertising campaign to promote the Sacagawea, reports that they are wildly popular with the public. The coins are so popular, it seems, that most people are getting them from banks and keeping them instead of buying things.

Although some large retailers, such as Wal-Mart, have agreed to dispense the dollar coin, many smaller store owners say they have never seen it.

Advocates of the new currency are concerned that the Sacagawea is not circulating fast enough and fear that it will suffer the same fate as the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin.

About 860 million Susan B. Anthony dollars were put into circulation between 1979 and 1981. Though in circulation for 20 years, that coin never caught on with the public, mainly because it looked too much like the quarter.

Although it is the same size and shape as the Susan B. Anthony, the Sacagawea is gold-colored and has a distinctive edge.

"We want people to spend the coins, but I have yet to see one given to me in change," said James Benfield, executive director of the Coin Coalition, a Washington trade group that urged Congress in 1997 to approve the new dollar coin.

Mr. Benfield represents vending-machine and mass-transit companies that must contend with huge amounts of dollar bills and coins. He said the Sacagawea will make transactions easier and save those companies a bundle, if only retailers and customers would use them more. One way to make that happen, he said, is to get rid of the dollar bill altogether.

Some store clerks react to the coin the same way consumers do, like it is a rare treasure to be admired and hoarded.

Hoang Nguyen, a hot-dog vendor near the National Air and Space Museum, held aloft two of the gold coins admiring their shiny newness.

"Hey, the new dollar coin. Maybe I'll sell them for two dollars," quipped Mr. Nguyen, who had never given or received the coins in a transaction.

Reaction to the coin was similar at other stores.

At the Xando coffee bar on Capitol Hill, one cashier smiled brightly as the coins were used to purchase coffee.

"Great, I've been wanting to go buy some of these," said the cashier as she exchanged the two coins for two dollar bills in her purse.

Mr. Benfield said hoarding is common for new currency, and he expects that the Sacagaweas will eventually be used like other coins for daily transactions.

Several cities, such as New York, have committed to dispensing the new dollar coin as change in mass transit. Chicago has decided to accept the coins in parking meters. And the U.S. Postal Service gives them as change in their stamp machines.

In Washington, however, Metro has not yet adopted the Sacagawea. Metro officials have said that if the Mint wants the city subway system to dispense the coins, then the federal government should pay the $475,000 required to retrofit Metro Farecard vending machines. D.C. public works officials said they are considering modifying city parking meters to accept the coins.

The new coins also have received a tepid response from some bank officials who have questioned the need for another form of currency.

"People are hoarding these coins in their safety-deposit boxes, and I don't see any of them in circulation," said Jim Smith, vice president of the American Bankers Association.

Mr. Smith, who is also president of the Union State Trust Bank in Clayton, Mo., said his bank vaults are still filled with countless Susan B. Anthony dollars that never made it into circulation.

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