Port of Willapa teeming with marijuana growers

The Daily World (Aberdeen)March 10, 2014 

The Port of Willapa Harbor is embracing marijuana.

After the blessing of city officials in Raymond where the port is based, it has now signed 11 leases with marijuana producers, becoming one of the most pot-centric ports in the state since voters passed the marijuana legalization initiative in November 2012.

“Our buildings are filled,” said port manager Rebecca Chaffee. The port is already receiving about $16,000 a month in rent from the leases.

Chaffee, who said she had never seen a marijuana plant, now sits in her tiny office surrounded by buildings where producers will grow or are growing pot. Most of the lessees are prepping their buildings in hopes of receiving a recreational license from the state this month. Some producers already have set up their collective gardens inside, Chaffee said.

The potent smell of the plant already drifts through the once-vacant sawmills and water filtration plants.

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

She estimates new marijuana-based jobs from the groups contracted with the port could eventually total about 200.

‘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 had been notified in November 2012 that HaloSource would be vacating five of the port’s buildings, and there simply was not interest in industrial space in Raymond from other businesses.

Chaffee said that 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 2013 that the port considered the possibility. State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, had guided Charles toward Pacific County when a site in Mason County didn’t work out.

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 how much the port was charging for its remaining space.

Chaffee said everyone was unsure about where things were headed up until 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.

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,” Chaffee said.

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

“We’re feeling like we’re the landlord,” she said. As long as the tenants pay their rent, which she said all are, the port does not foresee any issues.

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

Lessees are required by state law to have what Raymond Police Chief Chuck Spoor calls “pretty stringent” security standards, like around-the-clock camera monitoring. As far as collective gardens go, he said they are just ensuring that existing businesses meet state law, adding that all of the people he has worked with thus far have been “very professional.”

“I haven’t seen anything shady at all,” he said. He plans to treat the production in the area as if it 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 applications and working with Chaffee and medical marijuana producers coming onto industrial property in ensuring that everything – such as plumbing, electrical, fire codes and security – is in place.

He said the process has gone smoothly, with the public generally 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 that when the port applied for its conditional use permit to allow locating the businesses on its property, none of the 60 nearby property owners opposed it and three people came to the final meeting to show their support.

AROUND TOWN

But the influx of marijuana production certainly has the town abuzz. Step into the Raymond’s Corner Cafe, the local breakfast spot, and one hears it as the topic of many conversations.

Some worry about the effect on drug use in the area, which they say has already taken a turn for the worse. But others such as 57-year-old Raymond-based web designer Robyn Brooks said she is excited at the prospect. She 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,” Brooks said.

While she’s skeptical of what the legalization will mean for medical marijuana patients, she said she’s hopeful some “better controlled” medicinal shops will be 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,” she said.

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 works in the seafood industry in nearby South Bend, is considering himself.

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

But Howell’s mother-in-law, Judith Stuck of Riverdale, is astonished that the city of Raymond and the port have agreed to lease to marijuana producers. She opposes 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.

Montoure plans to keep his medical operation, while he waits to hear about 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 effect on Raymond. “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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