Commercial pot grow may come to Pacific County

A Seattle restaurateur and night club owner has signed a tentative lease agreement with the Port of Willapa Harbor to build a marijuana growing and processing facility.

Marcus Charles, known for Seattle establishments like the Crocodile Cafe and Juju, signed a lease agreement that would go into effect whenever he begins production at the old mill site at the Port, potentially as late as Oct. 1. He expects the facility to produce as many as 50 local jobs initially.

The lease has a great deal of flexibility for Charles, who may opt out if he fails to secure a marijuana production license or if the rules established by the state Liquor Control Board are unsatisfactory to him. He pays no money to the Port until the lease kicks in.

“Clearly there’s a great deal of support, after the passage of Initiative 502, and this is a business opportunity and it’s also the Aberdeen/Raymond/Willapa Harbor area is a great place to establish a business. It’s a great opportunity to do a public/private partnership,” said Charles’ spokesperson, Maryanne Bichsel.

She also noted, “There would clearly be a qualified workforce right away.”

Port manager Rebecca Chaffee said the Port had never considered marijuana production as a use for the property until approached by Charles in mid-February. She thanked state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, for pointing Charles toward Pacific County when a Mason County site fell through. After making the proposal to the Pacific County Economic Development Council, the Willapa Harbor site was suggested.

“We had never thought of marijuana growing here. We knew (I-502) had been passed but hadn’t paid much more attention to it than that,” she said.

When proposed to the Port commissioners, “Their first reaction was disbelief,” Chaffee said, but they kept an open mind until they heard Charles’ proposal.

“We met with him, we were impressed with him. Very young professional, very entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.

For now, the operation would occupy three large shipping sheds, about three acres in all. The lease allows Charles the option to expand farther into the 16-acre mill site if he decides to expand the business when he secures a marijuana production license.

The lease would start whenever Charles is ready to begin production, as late as Oct. 1, running five years at $4,800 a month. Until then, he has access to the site in order to make plans to upgrade the buildings, which would be his financial responsibility.

“These buildings need a lot of work, they’re not in the condition he can just move in and set up shop. He’s going to have to completely renovate the buildings,” Chaffee said.

Bichsel said Charles doesn’t have a figure in mind as far as how much he would spend on building upgrades, but noted there are a lot of positives to the existing structures.

“A lot of the very expensive stuff is in place — electric, water, that kind of thing, so that helps,” she said.

“The biggest issue for us was jobs,” Chaffee said. “Fifty jobs is a big private employer for our area, and he’s talking about the possibility of growing it. Everything depends on how the state manages this, which is an unknown right now.”

The exact jobs and wages haven’t been finalized, but Chaffee said the likely starting wage would be $15 per hour plus health care and benefits.

Bichsel said Charles planned to hire locally wherever possible, starting with construction.

“He’s going to try to hire locally first for everything. Any work that needs to be done on the building, production, operations, all of that,” she said.

The state has until August to finalize its producer license requirements, but Bichsel said Charles “anticipates it will be well before then, maybe May or June.”

At that time, work on the buildings would begin, she said.

Perhaps the largest unanswered question for all entrepreneurs interested in the new pot industry is how their business will operate while marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Chaffee said in Charles’ case, the lease specifies the business must operate under all state and federal laws with an exception spelled out for the current uncertainty around marijuana.

“He’s running the risk, in our opinion, by investing a significant amount of money in the buildings, setting up a business, and if for some reason the regulations are changed mid-stream — that could happen to him — it’s his risk. We feel like our risk is minimal,” Chaffee said.

“We feel it’s a legal business, it’s a new business opportunity. We’re not promoting people smoking or the use of marijuana, there will be no retail component,” she added.

For local law enforcement, security was the largest concern about an apparently large growing operation. Chaffee said Charles’ plans include fully fencing the area, 24-hour security on site, cameras on every plant with a possibility of connecting the Liquor Control Board and law enforcement to the video feed, and an extensive inventory tracking system.

“They can track every plant all the way through its life. We were very impressed with the security measures and the tracking measures, and so were the law enforcement people,” she said.

Chaffee said employees would undergo background checks, and possibly have to change into pocketless uniforms in a locker room before work.

The Raymond Police Department and the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office reviewed the security plans.

“I stated that this type of operation will never have my blessing on it,” said Sheriff Scott Johnson. “I appreciate them letting me know what’s going on; they didn’t have to have me in attendance. It’s a city of Raymond issue, but it affects people in the county.”

Johnson said he generally opposes marijuana, and worried about the impact a grow operation might have, particularly in Pacific County, where most law enforcement agencies are small and frequently rely on one another for aid.

“He has a pretty good plan in place to address those issues,” Johnson said of Charles.

Still, no security is ever a guarantee, he noted.

“It’s just like a bank. Even with all their security, they still get robbed. If you’ve got a whole bunch of product worth a whole lot of money, there’s always that potential that crime would occur there,” Johnson said.

“We thought that was probably as good as we could hope for” as far as a reaction from the sheriff, Chaffee said.

“I also made it clear to them that this is federally illegal still, and they were very well aware of it. Mr. Charles could end up a rich man or in federal prison,” Johnson said.

Chaffee said she has only heard positive feedback about the proposal.

“I’ve talked to a number of people, and the ones I have talked to have been positive. But I’m hearing there’s some people out and about that may have some concerns, but they have not brought them to me,” she said. “I’m hoping as people understand the project more they’ll be more comfortable.”