Pubdate: Fri, 13 Jan 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Joshua Miller


Holyoke has a number of old mill buildings that Mayor Alex B. Morse
believes would make an excellent location for the industry.

HOLYOKE - Vacant mill buildings along a series of canals serve as constant
reminders of this impoverished city's halcyon days as the Paper City of
the World. But the mayor has a distinctly 21st-century plan for the old

Alex B. Morse imagines marijuana growing in them.

Morse, the 27-year-old wunderkind who has been in office for more than
five years , believes his hometown is on the upswing, with the lowest
rates of crime and unemployment in many years. But the city, with a
poverty rate almost three times the state average, requires an infusion of
industry. And the state's nascent recreational marijuana business, he
says, would be a perfect fit.

The argument he makes for Holyoke becoming a recreational pot hub: Growers
need massive amounts of space, low-cost electricity and water, and access
to transportation. Holyoke has more than 1.5 million square feet of vacant
mill space downtown and some of the state's cheapest power and water, and
it is positioned on the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 91.

Holyoke needs "to capitalize on this industry in that it will create jobs,
expand our tax base, increase revenue for our community," he said in a
City Hall interview.

But the notion of this hardscrabble city becoming the center of the
state's marijuana trade has drawn sharp opposition from other leaders in
the community.

[photo] Holyoke's mayor, Alex B. Morse, in his office.

City Council President Kevin A. Jourdain, who opposed legalization, finds
a city profiting from drug sales repugnant, and he insists economic
development does not require rolling out the green carpet for legal pot

We want "to improve our reputation as sort of this downtrodden mill town
to something that is progressive and upcoming and positive. We don't want
to be known as the marijuana Mecca of Massachusetts," he said. "We can
grow the community and maintain a conscience at the same time."

That tension is playing out across Massachusetts as towns and cities
consider whether to welcome or shun pot shops, cultivation facilities,
infused product manufacturers, and testing operations.

Voters approved a ballot question in November that made purchase,
possession, use, and home-growing of marijuana legal on Dec. 15. But legal
sales and the businesses engaging in them are not likely to begin until
July 2018.

In Colorado, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012, local leaders had
to make a proactive decision to host commercial marijuana facilities. The
Massachusetts law, on the other hand, requires cities and towns to allow
marijuana facilities unless they hold a referendum and residents opt out.

Local officials can impose some limits on their own. But if they want to
stop a particular type of establishment from coming to town - for example,
cultivation facilities - they must go to the voters. They will also need
to hold a referendum if they want to sharply limit the number of pot
shops. If a city has 100 retail stores that sell alcohol, for example, it
will need to go to voters if it wants fewer than 20 marijuana retailers.

While the Legislature could amend the law, the current legal landscape
gives such leaders as Morse the head start in debates over whether to
welcome recreational marijuana with open arms.

The mayor, who was one of the very few elected officials who backed the
legalization ballot question, said he sees the marijuana industry without
stigma, like any other economic development prospect.

"We've seen a lot of excitement from [marijuana] companies because of the
makeup of our community. Compared to the eastern part of the state, the
cost of doing business in Western Mass. is much more affordable," he said.
"For us, it's manufacturing in our vacant spaces - occupying buildings,
creating jobs for residents. It makes sense. If folks can challenge
themselves to remove their fears and preconceived notions about this
industry, I think it will be much easier to view this as an economic
development opportunity."

Pete Kadens, the chief executive of GTI Investments, a company that owns
and operates medical cannabis licenses in three states - and may
transition to recreational marijuana - lavished praise on Morse.

"He is a true believer in his community, and he seeks to make it
business-friendly for every business, which is why we are working to be in
Holyoke," Kadens said in an e-mail. "We see and believe in his vision."

But Jourdain says any economic development must be balanced with its
social cost. Just as he would not want Holyoke to become the
cigarette-making capital of the country, he doesn't want his city to be
known as the state's commercial pot hub.

He acknowledged the will of the voters across Massachusetts, and in
Holyoke, where the legalization measure passed 57 percent to 43 percent.
But, he said, "to the extent that we have to have this, it will be as
limited as humanly possible."

One reason Jourdain cited is the "rampant drug problem" in Holyoke and
across Massachusetts. Although the research is not conclusive, Jourdain
said he believes in his heart marijuana is a gateway drug, leading users
to harder drugs.

"Yes we could make an extra buck and an extra dollar of taxes, and Lord
knows, we need it as a city. But I don't want to be known as the community
that is exporting a net negative" to the rest of the state, he said.

Morse, for his part, says he does not believe marijuana is a gateway drug.
The bigger culprit in the state's opioid addiction crisis, he says, is the
overprescribing of painkillers.

Jourdain is not alone in his opposition to a proliferation of the
marijuana industry.

Denis A. Luzuriaga, a Holyoke artist who, with his brother, is developing
a mixed residential-commercial space in an old factory along a canal, said
he doesn't think Holyoke is a good fit to become the center of state's
marijuana business.

"I see Holyoke as on the verge of taking off on just about everything.
What we need is all the things you would normally associate with a vibrant
downtown - not medical or recreational pot businesses," he said.

Luzuriaga emphasized he isn't against marijuana use. But he said he sees a
business such as a really good coffee shop with Wi-Fi and a welcoming
ambiance as better for bringing new residents to the city and for civic
engagement than several marijuana facilities or pot shops.

Walking along a canal on a recent chilly afternoon, Holyoke resident
Victor M. Cruz, in his mid-80s, said he supported the idea of people being
able to get marijuana for terminal illnesses. But the prospect of
recreational marijuana and shops in his hometown had him worried about the
impact on kids.

As wind whipped through boarded-up factories a few feet away, Cruz
pondered what Holyoke welcoming pot shops might look like. "I don't think
it's a good idea," he said.

But Morse is taking the long view: "I think this is one of those
industries that we're going to look back - I don't know how long it's
going to take, maybe 5 or 10 years, I hope sooner - and realize that we
wasted a lot of time and money on the prohibition of marijuana."

Holyoke resident Victor M. Cruz said the prospect of recreational
marijuana and shops in his hometown had him worried about the impact on
the city's youth.
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