Pot Takes Over Port of Willapa

By Sam Luvisi, March 1, 2014, The Daily World

 

After the blessing of city officials in Raymond where the Port exists, it has now signed a total of 11 leases with marijuana producers, becoming one of the most pot-centric Ports in the state since voters passed a first-of-its kind marijuana legalization initiative in November of 2012.

 

“Our buildings are filled,” said Port Manager Rebecca Chaffee. The Port is already receiving around $16,000 a month in rent from the leases, some of which were signed as recently as January.

 

Chaffee, who admits to never having seen a marijuana plant herself, now sits in her tiny office surrounded on both sides with buildings where producers will grow or are currently growing pot. Most of the lessees are currently prepping their buildings in hopes of receiving a recreational license from the state in March. Some producers have already set up their collective gardens inside, said Chaffee.

 

Aside from the potent smell of the plant, which already drifts through the outside of the once-vacant sawmills and water filtration plants — excitement for what the future holds permeates the air.

 

“I see us having a really crazily busy year,” said Chaffee, citing the fact that licenses will be issued in March and those who receive them will need to finish production within a year. “There’s a lot of work to be done to get everyone settled in.”

 

“Really Grim”

 

Before Initiative 502 and the influx of hopeful marijuana producers to Pacific County, things were “about to get really grim” in terms of economic opportunities for the Port, Chaffee said. She estimates new marijuana-based jobs from the groups contracted with the Port could eventually total about 200. She was notified in November of 2012 that the company HaloSource would be vacating five of the Port’s buildings and said despite a lot of effort to bring viable groups into the Port at that time, there simply was not interest for industrial space in Raymond from other business.

 

Chaffee says looking back, the idea of marijuana production should have been something the Port pursued as soon as I-502 passed.

 

“It’s something we hadn’t really thought about. It’s an economic opportunity. I’ve been living in this town for many years and there are not a lot of them,” she said. “I’m anxious to delve into this. I think it will add a positive new dimension to this community, add a social and cultural arm to our community. There aren’t a lot of reasons for new people to come here.”

 

It was not until Seattle-based entrepreneur Marcus Charles contacted them in February of 2013 that the Port considered the possibility. Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, had guided Charles toward Pacific County when a site in Mason County didn’t work out. Blake, who represents the 19th District, including all of Pacific County, said he was not aware of the recently evolved nature of things at the Port, but that “on it’s face, it sounds like some good news.”

 

Media coverage of Charles’ plans in Pacific County, where the Port was the first government body in the state to sign a lease with a cannabis entrepreneur, inspired an “avalanche of calls” to Chaffee from potential producers wondering about how much the Port was charging for its remaining space.

 

Chaffee said everyone was unsure about where things were headed up until Feb. 19, when the state’s Liquor Control Board approved staff recommendations to limit the number of individual marijuana producer licenses to one and to initially limit crop sizes to 70 percent of the previously announced square footage.

 

Most of the Port’s lessees had applied for the previous limit of three licenses, some hoping to open outdoor grow spaces in addition to their indoor growing operations and processing spaces. Because of the new limits, most will focus on their production indoors — granted they receive a license from the state in March — for the time being.

 

“In some ways I’m relieved because it gives us something to go on,” Chaffee said.

 

High demand

 

Most of the Port’s nicer available buildings are being leased at 40 cents per square foot, some buildings that are not insulated or don’t have much electrical wiring are leased at 30 cents a square foot.

 

“If I had known how much in demand they would have been, I would have raised the rent,” she said, adding that despite heading into unknown territory, she is glad there was someone like Charles to bring the possibility to their attention early.

 

She said many places ended up issuing moratoria because they did not take action soon enough prior to receiving calls from interested parties.

 

“A lot of people didn’t start looking until later this summer,” she said, adding it “takes a while” to be prepared to allow such businesses to come in.

 

Fears of faulty financing due to federal law are something the Port is “choosing not to think about,” said Chaffee.

 

“We’re feeling like we’re the landlord,” she said. As long as the tenants pay their rent, which she said all currently are, they do not forsee any issues.

 

While local banks have said they cannot service them because of federal banking laws on marijuana, she said all of those they are working with “have an answer” — many stating they are working with state-chartered banks that agree to work with them.

 

Lessees are required by state law to have what Raymond Police Chief Chuck Spoor calls “pretty stringent” security standards, like 24/7 camera monitoring. As far as collective gardens go, he said they are currently just making sure existing business meet state law, adding all of the people he has worked with thus far have been “very professional.”

 

“I haven’t seen anything shady at all,” he said, adding he plans to treat the production in the area as if there were a “winery or distillery” locating there — and does not foresee any increased crime or drug use due to the influx.

 

Scott Pearson with Raymond’s Public Works department has been processing recreational applications and working with Chaffee and medical marijuana producers coming onto industrial property in ensuring everything — such as plumbing, electrical, fire codes and security — is in place.

 

He said the process has gone smoothly, with a majority of the public showing support for the plans.

 

“I would say 95 percent are for it, 5 percent are against it. … I’d say it’s somewhat similar to when prohibition ended,” he said.

 

Pearson said when the the Port applied for its conditional use permit, none of the 60 written notices to property owners near the Port received any negative response and three individuals came to the final meeting to show their support.

 

Around Town

 

Whatever the beliefs of Raymond residents, the impending influx of marijuana production certainly has the town abuzz. Step into the Corner Cafe, the local breakfast spot, and one hears it as the topic of many conversations.

 

Some worry about the impact on drug use in the area that they say has already taken a turn for the worse, but others like 57-year-old Raymond-based Web designer Robyn Brooks said she is excited at the prospect. She currently uses medical marijuana for severe back pain, and her 90-year-old “very conservative” mother takes a marijuana “elixir” in her tea to ease her glaucoma symptoms.

 

“I think it’s great, we need industry. … Anything is better than nothing,” said Brooks.

 

While she’s skeptical of what the legalization will mean for medical marijuana patients, she’s also glad that there may be some “better controlled” medicinal shops nearby, so she no longer feels the need to drive to Olympia for her medication.

 

“This isn’t some fun hippies, this is a real master-gardener type of thing.”

 

Tami Galvin, a 33-year-old waitress at the cafe, said she “doesn’t really care one way or another about it,” but is happy that it will mean more jobs for the area — jobs she said her husband, who currently works in the seafood industry in nearby South Bend, is considering himself.

 

Randall Howell, who used marijuana medically after an accident working at a cannery but has stopped in favor of doctor-prescribed drugs to ease his pains, said he is in favor of the economic benefits it will bring to town. He also has plans of his own to capitalize on the times — Howell’s home is located on industrial land and he said he’s “thinking of opening a glass (pipe) shop.”

 

Sitting across from Howell, his mother-in-law Judith Stuck, of Riverdale, differs drastically in opinion. She is astonished that the city of Raymond and the Port have agreed to lease to marijuana producers at all, let alone to such an extent. Stuck said “it makes no sense,” and that she disagrees with any use of the drug, even medical cannabis.

 

“Pot’s pot, period,” she said. “It stinks just as bad.”

 

Many of the Port’s lessees are hesitant to speak to the press prior to the state’s issuance of licenses, but Richard Montoure, of Good to Grow, said he has nothing to hide.

 

Formerly a building contractor for 15 years, Montoure said he “packed up his whole life” and moved from Seattle to Raymond, where he has leased a warehouse next to Chaffee’s office. He said he heard about “a place called Raymond” from friends in the business, and was persuaded to move his 2-year-old medical marijuana operation there, being told if he didn’t do it “somebody else will.”

 

Montoure plans to keep his medical operation, while he waits to hear on his I-502 application. He’s heading into his second round of interviews with the state.

 

Montoure hopes to eventually create a “winery type atmosphere” complete with tastings and a selection of the most popular strains of marijuana available from around the world.

 

“I think it’s gonna be huge,” he said of the industry’s impact on Raymond and vice versa. “I think Raymond’s the spot. If they let guys like me do my thing, we’ll blow it up, create some jobs and hone our skills. We’re all just in search of the perfect product.”

 

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