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May 13, 2019 The business of marijuana

Uxbridge, Athol find new revenue by embracing cannabis

PHOTO/ZACHARY COMEAU Marijuana entreprenuers Kevin MacConnell (left) and Tim Phillips got their start in Colorado but are now operating a cannabis growing and manufacturing company in Uxbridge, which is Phillips's hometown.

When Caroline Frankel was scouting locations for a retail cannabis dispensary in Central Massachusetts, the first town she reached out to – Northbridge – wouldn't even hear her idea.

“They didn't even want to entertain a dialogue,” Frankel said. Northbridge hadn't set up its marijuana zoning yet.

She then settled on Uxbridge, and her business, Caroline's Cannabis, helped open the town to potentially seven more cannabis businesses. Town officials are now considering raising its cap on pot retailers to accommodate the lucrative industry due to create extra tax revenue with a 3% local sales tax.

“I'm so happy I did,” she said.

While half of all Massachusetts cities and towns have enacted or are actively considering a ban or moratorium on recreational marijuana businesses, towns like Uxbridge and Athol in Worcester County have gone in the other direction, seeing an opportunity in welcoming the controversial industry with open arms.

As of May 8, Uxbridge has signed nine host community agreements with cultivators, retailers and manufacturers to bring in create more than 100 jobs and generate about $1 million sales and property tax revenue. Selectmen have even discussed a fall Town Meeting article to lift the three retail store limit.

Municipal officials have welcomed the industry in a town struggling to raise new revenue from commercial developments, which has sometimes impacted town services like in 2017 when the town voted against a $1.3-million tax override, leading to cuts across the school department.

“When [marijuana companies] come and express an interest, we return that interest,” said Michael Gallerani, Uxbridge's economic development and community planner.

The small town's Board of Selectmen have even authorized a host community agreement with a drive-thru retailer, the first of its kind in the state.

Uxbridge lays claim to being the home of the state's first woman-owned small cannabis business in Caroline's Cannabis, which opened in March. Free of investors, Frankel paid for everything herself and navigated the complicated license applications without an expensive attorney.

Frankel applied for a license with the state Cannabis Control Commission on June 1, the first day the application period opened and so far, there have been no issues at the town's first retailer, which was the 11th to open in the state.

Other retailers in small towns have had issues with traffic, congestion and long lines, but not in Uxbridge.

“When you don't hear anything bad, that's good news,” Gallerani said.

A growing industry

In the building behind Caroline's on Douglas Street in Uxbridge, at least two other marijuana companies plan to cultivate and manufacture products, including Blackstone Valley Naturals run by two cannabis entrepreneurs who got their start in Colorado.

Blackstone Valley Naturals is applying to the Cannabis Control Commission for a microbusiness license to grow cannabis and manufacture oil and extracts. Those products will be sold to existing dispensaries, including Caroline's Cannabis.

Kevin MacConnell and Tim Phillips – the latter an Uxbridge native – found a willing partner community in Uxbridge.

“At the time, I remember other towns were further behind than Uxbridge in the process,” MacConnell said. Other towns “were still trying to agree if they wanted recreational or agreed to recreational and hadn't zoned off areas yet.”

Even in a part of the state known as one of the more conservative areas of New England, officials have expressed their support for the new businesses.

“It's a diamond in the rough,” Phillips said of his hometown officials' view on the industry and hopes the revenue can help the town fix its financials.

Vibrancy starting to return

For other small Central Massachusetts areas, recreational weed could bring a boost to the former mill and factory towns that once powered the centuries-old industrial economy.

According to CCC data, Worcester County had 91 applications for a marijuana business license at the end of April, more than double the next highest region in Berkshire County with 40.

In the North Central town of Athol, a cultivator is in the midst of a redevelopment project to outfit a long-vacant 360,000-square-foot mill building.

MassGrow LLC purchased the former Union Twist Drill building for $1.15 million in August and is investing $20 million for renovations. In its heyday, Union Twist employed 700 at the factory. MassGrow has said it will hire up to 150 employees within 18 months of beginning operations.

In total, Athol has approved one other cultivator and is in talks with another. The town has given local approval to two retailers and a cannabis testing laboratory.

Union Twist's departure in the 1980s led to an economic depression in town that pervaded for a few decades, but the town had made significant progress over the last 10 years, including 300,000-square-feet of new development including restaurants, retail, offices. Plans are in the works for a new hotel.

The town isn't relying on the marijuana industry for new growth; but it's inevitably coming, and the town is welcoming those firms with open arms, said Town Manager Shaun Suhoski.

“Our planning and select boards were at the forefront of providing a zoning and regulatory framework that would welcome the new industry,” Suhoski said. “My staff and permitting team are here to assist responsible developers through consistent and timely reviews and approvals.”

When Suhoski started working in Athol in 2014, he made a list of top priorities for economic development. Getting someone new in the Union Twist building was third.

“The four floors are lit up at night during construction,” said Suhoski. “The community sees the vibrancy starting to return to that site.”

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