WATERVILLE — The city is becoming a popular place for medical marijuana retail stores, as well as growing and cultivation facilities.

In just the last week, the Planning Board on Monday approved a final plan for a cultivation facility at 46 Industrial Road, and the City Council on Tuesday approved marijuana retail licenses for Northwoods Farmacy at 107 College Ave. and Sweet Dirt at 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive.

The city has placed no limit on the number of marijuana businesses that may open in Waterville. Councilors on Tuesday said they are allowing the market to drive the industry.

“It certainly is possible the city could establish a limit, but I think some people think it’s going to be market-driven,” City Manager Michael Roy said Thursday. “If there’s over-supply and under demand, that itself will weed out a certain number of businesses.”

So far, there are 10 marijuana facilities in Waterville. There are four on College Avenue, two on Main Street, two on Armory Road, one on Kennedy Memorial Drive and one on Industrial Road.

The City Clerk’s office has taken in $59,750 in permit fees from those businesses, and that does not include fees the code enforcement office has collected, according to Deputy City Clerk Sarah Cross.

Roy said licensing and fees for a business can be costly.

“One brought in $12,000 in licensing and permitting fees, back in the spring,” he said.

City councilors Tuesday discussed the benefits of such businesses to the revenue stream, including fees and taxes.

“It could end up being a fairly significant source of revenue for the city,” Roy said. “It’s just unclear now how many will end up establishing on a permanent basis because of the whole market demand question.”

The rendering captures the view of Sweet Dirt’s medical marijuana store from the front. Sweet Dirt is in the process of renovating the former Pine Cone Gift & Furniture store at 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive, right off Interstate 95. The company expects to open in September. Tricarico Architecture & Seven Point Interiors

He noted that several representatives of marijuana-related businesses who spoke to city councilors or Planning Board members said the city’s marijuana ordinance is comprehensive and easy to understand.

“A number of people who have come before us have been thankful the city has something in writing — guidelines and procedures — clear examples of the process and the cost and everything,” Roy said. “I think it was a very important step the city took in establishing the ordinance early on to get ahead of it.”

The council appointed members to a special marijuana committee, which drafted a marijuana ordinance. The council approved the ordinance April 2, 2019.

GROWING DEMAND

Sweet Dirt, an Eliot-based, cannabis retail business, plans to open in September in the former Pine Cone Gift & Furniture store at 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive, right off Interstate 95.

The company is renting and renovating the 3,100-square-foot space, according to Rebecca Henry, vice president of marketing for Sweet Dirt, whose husband, Jim, is chief executive officer.

“We want it to be elegant and beautiful and welcoming,” Rebecca Henry said Thursday. “We’ll be opening first as a medical cannabis company. We’ve had a lot of interest. When the state decides it’s the right time for adult use, we plan to do that as well.”

She said the demand for medical cannabis is great and increased even more with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. People use prescribed medical cannabis for a variety of reasons, including anxiety, sleep issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and glaucoma, according to Rebecca Henry.

“It is the third-largest industry, behind lobsters and potatoes, in Maine,” she said. “It’s a big industry and for a long time, people were very quiet about cannabis use.”

Sweet Dirt’s medical cannabis is organic and comes in various forms in the retail store, including flowers which are typically smoked, tinctures placed under the tongue to work faster, and edibles, she said.

Clients call and pre-order the product and must arrive with a state ID and medical card issued by a doctor or other authorized person such as a nurse practitioner.

The rendering captures the view of Sweet Dirt’s medical marijuana store from the back. Sweet Dirt is in the process of renovating the former Pine Cone Gift & Furniture store at 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive, right off Interstate 95. The company expects to open in September. Tricarico Architecture & Seven Point Interiors

Rebecca Henry said that as part of an agreement with the states, customers from Massachusetts acquired medical cannabis from Maine stores when stores in Massachusetts closed during the pandemic.

Sweet Dirt, which has 20 employees at its current locations, expects to employ about 15 people in Waterville by October and that number will grow, according to Henry. She said the company has received more than 100 applications for the Waterville jobs, which will include those in retail management and staff.

Within the next 12 to 18 months, the company expects to employ between 125 and 150 people, according to Henry.

Sweet Dirt is currently pouring a slab for a 32,000-plus square-foot greenhouse in Eliot. Henry said that, to the best of her knowledge, it is the largest in the state. The company also is seeking a license for a retail store in Portland.

“We definitely have Maine roots,” Rebecca Henry said, adding that the majority of Sweet Dirt’s management is Maine born and raised.

“We feel strongly about hiring and bringing opportunities to Maine,” she said.

Because of a fire last spring, Sweet Dirt has been operating its retail business out of a temporary location in Eliot but plans to open a new storefront in August. Henry said the company also plans to add adult-use cannabis when the state approves it.

Sweet Dirt was started by a Maine-based couple who were medical marijuana caregivers, and since then, it has grown into a “seed to sale” business, according to Henry. Their founders are Hughes Pope and Kristin Pope.

Henry said the state Office of Marijuana Policy has been working aggressively on requests from businesses wanting to offer adult-use cannabis, but there is no official word on the exact date for when it may be allowed.

“They’re working very hard to make that a reality,” Rebecca Henry said.

She said she believes one reason for the increase in cannabis-related businesses in Maine is that the industry has been lucrative for a lot of states, from a tax revenue standpoint.

“I think the demand is there and a lot of people are trying to meet the demand. My gut says Maine had about 2,000 caregivers offering medicine to patients, and a lot of them are pivoting into adult-use because they have the knowledge. There is a lot of demand — a 30% increase in people seeking medical cards due to COVID.”

The former Pine Cone Fine Furniture & Gifts store at 475 Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville, pictured Thursday, is being renovated and will reopen as Sweet Dirt, a medical cannabis store. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Rebecca Henry said Sweet Dirt is one of only 15 companies in the state that have clean cannabis certification from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

“We’re serious business people, and we care about what we’re doing,” she said. “If it’s going to be medical, it needs to be clean.”

Jessica Oliver, Sweet Dirt’s vice president of cannabis operations, who went before Waterville councilors Tuesday with Jim Henry, said in a statement Thursday that the company has enjoyed working with the city.

“The ordinance is sophisticated and comprehensive,” Oliver said. “Communication with city staff has been easy and forthcoming, and we appreciate the city of Waterville being so forward-thinking and working so hard to create a robust ordinance that is, at the same time, easy to work with.”

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