Former Lenox Dale mill eyed for medical marijuana production facility, dispensary

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LENOX — A recently launched Boston company is seeking an invitation from Town Hall to locate a medical marijuana growing and processing facility, along with a dispensary, potentially at a vacant mill in Lenox Dale.

A team from Crane Healthcare Inc. offered a detailed presentation to the Select Board on Wednesday night in support of their request for either a letter of support or a letter of non-opposition by Town Manager Christopher Ketchen in order to make Lenox a host community for the operation.

The letter is the first step among many conditions imposed by the state Department of Health on applicants proposing to manufacture and distribute marijuana to patients certified by the state to receive it for treatment of medical conditions.

There are about 600 Berkshire County patients eligible to receive medical marijuana, according to Crane Healthcare's Chief Operating Officer Michael Sung. "Should people have to drive all the way over to Northampton to access the product and medicine they need?" he asked. A facility there is the only one already open in Western Massachusetts.

The vacant Niagara Mill in Lenox Dale is a tentative location for the growing and processing operation and the dispensary, Sung said, "even though there are many problems with the site. We really like the site, we feel there's a lot of potential and with proper coordination and support, we could give it a go and see if we can actually deploy a facility here for growing, cultivation and also a dispensary."

If the facility is approved by the town and the state, about 25 jobs would be created in Lenox Dale, according to Satu S. Parikh, CEO of Crane Healthcare.

"Reuse of the mill would be awesome," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, in an interview on Thursday. "It would bring a different level of economic development and a boost to Lenox Dale. It would be good to see the lights turned back on."

The company already has "site control" of the Niagara Mill, Sung told the Select Board. He pointed out that several potential commercial sites on Pittsfield Road (Routes 7 and 20) also are under consideration.

"We think we have a location that works with your recently passed zoning," Crane Healthcare's attorney and compliance officer Valerio Romano of the VGR law firm in Boston told the selectmen. The Crane Healthcare co-founders have been scouting sites in town for the past two months, meeting with Ketchen and with Lenox Chamber of Commerce leaders.

At the May 4 annual town meeting, Lenox voters approved by voice vote, without discussion, a zoning bylaw amendment confining any medical marijuana operations to the commercial zones on the state highway north of downtown or the Lenox Dale industrial zone. Excluded were the commercial districts in the downtown historic village and in Lenox Dale.

Romano's practice represents about a third of the 100 registered facilities in the state. Only 1l dispensaries have opened so far, Romano said.

Outlining the state's stringent security requirements for medical marijuana businesses, Romano said that "we will work with your police department and the town to ensure that all of our security procedures and protocols are approved by the town as well as the Department of Public Health."

The Niagara Mill, along with the Columbia and Greylock mills in Lee, were purchased by a Wisconsin-based development company in August 2014 for $1.5 million. The mills in Lee had been closed by previous owner Schweitzer-Mauduit International in 2008, putting several hundred employees out of work.

President Eric Spirtas of Niagara Worldwide based in Niagara, Wis., could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The Niagara Mill, which had shut down operations in 2006, dates back to the mid-1860s and is situated along the Housatonic River, across from the Lenox Dale residential neighborhood.

"We hope to be in Lenox for a very long-term commitment," Sung said. "This industry is a great opportunity for many good, high-quality jobs and we highly intend to reinvest back into the community."

Romano, the company's attorney, stressed that no crimes have been reported at any dispensaries in the state.

"There are a lot of easier places to get marijuana or cash than one of these dispensaries," he told the Select Board. "These are probably the safest places in the commonwealth. This is a very serious, well-regulated operation."

Responding to a question from Selectman Channing Gibson, Romano said that under the current plan, Crane Healthcare would locate both its cultivation facility and dispensary at the Lenox Dale mill, although the dispensary could be shifted to a second site if one of the potential locations on Pittsfield Road works out.

Selectman David Roche suggested an informational meeting for Lenox Dale residents at a time and location to be determined. Romano responded that the company's leaders would welcome the opportunity. The Select Board is expected to continue the discussion at its May 31 meeting, when the company may disclose additional potential locations.

Reaction from the Police Department, Board of Health and the Planning and Zoning boards should be solicited, said Select Board Chairman Warren Archey.

Crane Healthcare is a nonprofit that cannot get an IRS exemption from paying local property taxes because marijuana is still considered by the U.S. as a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, LSD and "ecstasy."

Crane was incorporated on March 16 in Boston and has filed an application of intent with the state DPH for a registration certificate to operate a medical marijuana facility in Massachusetts.

The DPH document filed March 29 includes the required financial statement showing that Crane Healthcare has more than the required $500,000 available if its application is approved. The account contains $3,440,332.22, according to the Vanguard Group brokerage statement submitted to the state.

Berkshire County's first medical marijuana cultivation facility, Berkshire Roots, is preparing to open a 16,000-square-foot growing operation at 501 Dalton Ave. in Pittsfield, according to John E. Mullen IV, CEO of Khem Organics. A nearby dispensary operated by Heka Health is planned at at 531 Dalton Ave. It would open this fall, subject to final DPH approval.

Meanwhile, Temescal Wellness expects to break ground soon on a building on Callahan Drive off West Housatonic Street in Pittsfield, according to Julia Germaine, the chief operating officer for the company's Massachusetts operations.

In Great Barrington, Theory Wellness has received final DPH approval for a dispensary on State Road expected to open as soon as next month. The marijuana will come from a growing and processing facility in Bridgewater.

According to the state, there were 34,392 active medical marijuana patients statewide as of three months ago, and 183 physicians registered with the state DPH can certify patients for the drug. Romano put the current figure at about 40,000 patients.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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