Brooklyn chocolatier eyes space in Berkshire Mall to grow marijuana

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LANESBOROUGH — A New York City-based chocolatier is eyeing the former J.C. Penney space at the Berkshire Mall as the possible home for a marijuana cultivation and manufacturing facility.

The Select Board has unanimously agreed to negotiate a host community agreement with Lev Kelman and his wife and business partner, Lori Denman, of Brooklyn. The deal would be the first step toward several local and state approvals needed.

Kelman told the board recently he's eyeing the 51,000-sqaure-foot anchor location for lease or outright purchase.

"We need a large space because there's such a shortage of cannabis plants right now, so we're not going to be able to purchase from somewhere else," he said, "so we'll have to grow our own."

The project could pump new life into the troubled shopping complex, which has seen the occupancy rate plummet in recent years. The mall has lost such retail giants as Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy's and Best Buy, along with many smaller independent and chain stores. A Target store remains at the mall's northernmost anchor spot.

The former J.C. Penney space is currently occupied by the Berkshire Mall Emporium, comprised of multiple vendors who sell a variety of goods. It's not clear what would happen to the emporium if the marijuana project comes to fruition.

If space allows, Kelman plans to open a hemp and marijuana museum to educate the public on their differences and the history of their use.

Kelman is no stranger to pot-related products, noting he uses medicinal marijuana, and four years ago he began selling hemp chocolate bars at his store Brooklyn Dark, which he opened in 2011. His website notes that the hemp seeds have no THC, the active chemical in marijuana that provides the high for users.

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The chocolate produced here would contain THC and would be for distributed for sale on the wholesale market.

Kelman needs to obtain two permits from Lanesborough for the project, according to Town Manager Kelli Robbins, before the state Cannabis Control Commission will consider granting him licenses for the facility. Kelman has yet to formally seek state approval for his project.

The Select Board was concerned about the smell of marijuana wafting beyond the facility's walls.

Kelman vowed to contain any odor due to the manufacturing process.

"The technology is so sophisticated now. There's filters; it will be self-contained," he said. "We'll make sure people who think negatively about marijuana will not even know we're there."

Since buying the mall in September 2016 for $3.5 million, principal owner Michael Kohan has struggled to meet local tax payment deadlines because, he said, he's pumping in money to keep the financially struggling shopping center afloat.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is currently conducting a $70,000 study to research ways other struggling malls across the country breathed new life into the shopping centers. Commissioned by the Baker Hill Road District, a town governmental body that monitors mall activity and manages the road that serves the mall, the study will examine relevant zoning and other regulatory changes necessary for new uses.

Regional planners will also evaluate existing physical and infrastructure conditions that could impact the mall's redevelopment. A final report is expected by the end of this year.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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