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Searching for Sacagaweas

Coins have yet to buy way into wide circulation. Collectors, Fed hold most

By Jeannine Aversa Associated Press,
Published in the Akron Beacon Journal

WASHINGTON: The new dollar coin that bears the image of Sacagawea is proving to be as elusive as the route to the Northwest that explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were seeking two centuries ago when she accompanied them.

The coin made its debut almost a year ago, and by now, it was supposed to be jingling in people's pockets. But it seems the only sighting many Americans have had is in newspaper and television ads.

Greg Rohde, an assistant secretary of commerce, said he first saw it in Istanbul, Turkey. Other than the 15 golden-colored dollar coins he got as change from a street vendor, Rohde hasn't seen any.

"I used a couple of them in the cafeteria here, but it always takes an explanation of what they are," he said.

The U.S. Mint said its research shows that 90 percent of Americans are aware of the Sacagawea (pronounced sock-ah-gah-WEE-ah) because of its $40 million advertising blitz, in which a hip George Washington urges people to use them. But that doesn't mean they've ever held one.

About 1.2 billion coins have been made. The Mint estimates that roughly 700 million are "in circulation,'' with the rest sitting in bank and Mint vaults. But "in circulation'' means the coins have been shipped to the Federal Reserve, the supplier of cash to banks, or are held by collectors. It doesn't mean they are being used as currency.

Bankers said there has not been much demand for the coins from retailers. And people increasingly are getting their money from ATM machines, which usually don't dispense coins.

The Federal Reserve estimates that about $530 million in dollar coins -- including some Susan B. Anthony coins -- were shipped since last January.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem with the dollar coin that's gone on for a year. Consumers say, 'If I get them, I'll use them.' Banks say, 'If consumers want them, they'll get them,' " said Michael White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint.

Beth Deisher, editor of Coin World, an industry magazine, believes Sacagaweas won't be widely used as long as the dollar bill is available. When Canada introduced its dollar coin, known as the Loonie, it began phasing out the paper equivalent. The United Kingdom and other countries have done the same.

When the Sacagaweas debuted, the Mint gave the Wal-Mart retail chain about 100 million to offer to customers when making change -- an effort to get the coins into peoples' hands quickly.

"Customers were very happy to get them without a doubt," said Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams. "They kind of went into circulation. Then it was real quiet there for a while, but the coins are beginning to show up here and there in tender."

Some Kmart stores make change with the Sacagaweas, but there isn't a corporate mandate to use them, said spokesman Stephen Pagnani.

Coin experts believe the Sacagawea coin is unlikely to meet the fate of its predecessor, the Susan B. Anthony coin. It is still in circulation, though production of the coin has stopped.

But they question whether the new coins will be used routinely.

"Americans tend to be conservative. The penny has not changed since 1909,'' said White. ``Basically, with the golden coin, we're asking people to change their behavior and that takes a while."

© The Beacon Journal Publishing Co.