Crews work at the site of the Burnt River Farms, a new marijuana store, in north Ontario. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – The city is in the midst of an economic boom being driven by marijuana.

Several million dollars is being invested in new buildings or to remodel others. Employment by local marijuana merchants is adding up, and owners expect their payrolls to grow as business expands.

“The cannabis industry is potentially going to be the biggest employer in Ontario,” said Eric Lantz, general manager of Weedology. The green rush was triggered when city voters overturned a citywide ban on recreational marijuana in November. 

The development of the retail marijuana business is evident all around Ontario, with towering signs. None of the stores are open yet – awaiting approval from the state agency that regulates marijuana in Oregon. Within next year at least five marijuana businesses are scheduled to be up and running, with another seven in the works. Each marijuana business will offer varied hours of operation but under a city ordinance the new shops can only be open between the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The marijuana shops will feature such items as cannabis, hemp, oils, edibles, marijuana flower and lotions.

The sudden influx of construction promises new jobs for the county’s biggest city, but some city elected leaders aren’t sure what the marijuana boom will mean for the future.

Dan Cummings, Ontario economic development director, said marijuana isn’t the only business driving economic growth in Ontario but conceded most of the recent construction in town is connected to the industry.

Dan Capron, Ontario city council president, said the number of new marijuana businesses doesn’t surprise him.

Capron said questions remain about how long the new dispensaries will last.

 “We will see how it plays out. There are a lot of unknowns,” said Capron. “But so far, we have some better-looking buildings, but whether they stay or not I don’t know.”

City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez said he expects only a few of the new businesses will have long-term staying power.

“I think with the commerce that comes from the Treasure Valley, those people will be better serviced with three or four dispensaries,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said it would “take a few years for them to balance themselves out.”

“Long-term, I don’t really see it hurting Ontario,” said Rodriguez.

Capron said he remains undecided about whether the sudden building boom is good for Ontario.

“When all of this first started, I said no. I just don’t know now. Depends on how we spend the money,” said Capron.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said the new marijuana businesses will “in fact raise gross profits” for the city.

“The reality is that it is economic development because it’s new business, new jobs and new revenue,” said Brown.

His next budget projects approximately $750,000 in marijuana fees and taxes.

The city plans to use the money “to invest in our community in hopes that the improvements will drive more economic development,” Brown said.

Capron said the city would benefit from dispensary tax revenues.

“There will be jobs and they seem to pay decent from what I hear. So, I see a lot of good things with it. We will see how it plays out,” said Capron.

Rodriguez said marijuana revenues would help the city improve bathrooms at city parks and other recreational areas.

“I haven’t had anyone tell me, ‘I don’t want that to happen because it is marijuana money,’” said Rodriguez.

Councilor Michael Braden said he didn’t support legalizing marijuana sales in Ontario.

“I was not a fan of introducing it into society as a whole,” said Braden. Now, though, Braden said the new construction has eliminated several local eyesores.

“From what I’ve seen, these businesses are very sharp. You know, these are not cardboard boxes set up on a corner. What I see being done is done in a responsible manner. I think they are doing a commendable job,” said Braden.

Cummings pointed out the marijuana building boom is “making our city look better.”

“At this point, what I’m seeing is a good thing. New buildings are being constructed, which adds to the tax base and old buildings are getting remodeled, which also adds to the tax base,” said Cummings. 

John Breidenbach, executive director of the Ontario City Chamber of Commerce, said the marijuana construction activity is good.

“It is really nice that there are a lot of old buildings in town getting cleaned up. Growth looks nice,” said Breidenbach.

Breidenbach said the chamber would welcome the new businesses to the organization.

“The industry is legal. If a dispensary wants to be part of the community and join the chamber, we will allow that,” said Breidenbach.

City officials said that the marijuana firms will be a major employer. The only uncertainty is how many jobs the businesses will provide.

Brown said the city believes initially new marijuana merchants will furnish 150 new jobs. While Cummings said that based on conversations he had with owners, each one could generate 30 to 50 jobs. Steven Meland, the owner of Hotbox CBD on 183 E. Idaho Ave., said he now employs six people, including two managers.

However, Meland is building another marijuana shop on 325 N.E. Goodfellow St. at the former Oregon State Police outpost. Meland said he plans to hire 50 fulltime employees at the Goodfellow Street location. Meland projects that within a year he would employ more than 150 people.

Meland said he wasn’t surprised by the new marijuana businesses in Ontario.

“There were hundreds of people interested,” said Meland.

Lantz, whose Weedology is going in on East Idaho Avenue west of Interstate 84, said his business will hire between 15 and 20 people initially.

He said there was no shortage of applicants.

“It’s been unreal. I think around 500 people have applied for our job posting on Indeed. It’s a budtender position only. We’ve interviewed over 80 people,” said Lantz.

 “If you look at what you get at Huntington, and you bring it here, just imagine how much money this will bring to Ontario,” said Lantz. Weedology’s 7,405-square-foot facility is nearly ready to open. Lantz said he is now waiting on final approval from the state.

Lantz also said the boost in marijuana businesses in Ontario is no surprise.

“There is a lot of optimism in this business,” said Lantz.

Other marijuana businesses are popping up all around town. Next to Love’s Travel Stop in north Ontario, construction is underway for Burnt River Farms’ 2,600-square-foot marijuana store.

A marijuana retail facility – to be built by a father-and-son duo Matt and Bryan Chadwick from Eugene - is also planned near the Holiday Inn Express on Southeast 10th Street.

By far the biggest marijuana business investment will be on East Lane next to the Dollar Store where Spokane-area pot entrepreneur Tate Kapple plans to build a $2 million, 8,800 square-foot store.

Kapple provided much of the funding for the ballot measure that opened the door to local marijuana sales last fall.

Cummings said Monday he was unsure why Kapple was building such a large facility.

The combined construction costs for those five marijuana businesses is about $3.9 million.

Capron said he believes most of the business for any local marijuana stores rolls out of Idaho. That means, he said, if Idaho ever decides to legalize recreational marijuana, the Ontario market will dry up. Until then, he said, Ontario will be a regional pot hub.

“I think we are going to be the place to stop and get your marijuana,” said Capron.

News tip? Comment? Contact reporters Kristine de Leon at news@malheurenterprise.com or Pat Caldwell at pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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