Cutting the ribbon on a new cannabis dispensary or getting state approvals for marketing marijuana can seem like a normal course of business these days in Boston. But for a number of Dorchester operatives, the possession of permits represents years of navigating steep learning curves.
After five years of meetings, cobbling together financing, and completing an endless number of applications, some have opened for business, others are expecting to do so soon, and some still have their bids in the permitting pipeline.
Dorchester’s Tito Jackson, a former city councillor, opened his Apex Noire cannabis dispensary last month inside a 10,000-square-foot seven-story building at 150 State St. downtown, with plans to use an existing liquor license to open a separate bar and roof-deck lounge in the building in July and open a cannabis edible product factory in a commercial kitchen within the facility later this year.
“We’re very happy to be the first Black-owned cannabis dispensary in downtown Boston,” said Jackson, who threw a block party on State Street at the ribbon-cutting on April 15.
“There are also challenges. It’s not 2018…There is competition everywhere now, but we feel we’re very well positioned. … We are an experience rather than just a transaction.”
Jackson kicked off his venture in retail cannabis by looking along River Street in Mattapan Square before turning his sights to downtown. In the end, he said, he’s happy he followed the detour.
“Sadly, that didn’t work out in Mattapan,” he said. “We ended up not in a better neighborhood downtown, but in a better situation because we can have all these complements to our business that we would not have had the space for in that situation [Mattapan]. … We get to provide our cannabis products and possess one of the 11 liquor licenses owned by Black people in Boston.”
Jackson noted that sales are increasing daily, and he praised the quality of his “cannabis concierge” staff. Speaking to the matter of entrepreneurs navigating the varying city and state rules and regulations, he said the city needs to decide its approach on equity, and that includes adhering to the half-mile buffer zone between marijuana shops, as well as preventing well-heeled multi-state operators from swooping in and stealing market share.
“We have a herculean task to open the doors,” he said. “It’s a couple million dollars – really $2.5 million – to get the doors open. I’m from Dorchester; I’m not that Tito Jackson. The city of Boston has to look at how not to be the antithesis of equity, which is allowing seven dispensaries within a half-mile radius.”
Large operators don’t face the same obstacles and headwinds, Jackson said. “There was a buffer put in place for a reason; [we have to] ensure equity is not a flash in the pan.”
A hectic corner in Bowdoin-Geneva
Back in Dorchester, husband and wife team Bill and Kim Hewson are approaching the finish line after five years spent seeking city and state approvals for the 617THC store at the corner of Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue in a space that was once home to three storefronts.
“We believe we’ll open in late May or late June,” said Bill, who noted that they began looking at the space in 2018. “We feel very strongly that the latest we’ll be open is late June, but we’re optimistic about late May.”
Backed by Dorchester investors, 617THC at 144 Bowdoin St. is smaller than Apex Noire, but still boasts seven points of sale and a spacious display area. The Newsoms hope to offer customers all price points. Their operation has its own cannabis cultivation facility in the MetroWest town of Millis that they expect to have open by the fall. That will allow them to offer “617” branded cannabis grown and sold in Massachusetts.
The new storefront for 617THC at 144 Bowdoin St. Its operators, the Hewsons, said they are embracing the corner and plan on having their store contribute to better security in the area. Seth Daniel photos
“The cultivation will help us control costs better,” Bill said. “Some of our closest competitors don’t have cultivation. They are purely retail. We plan on having six months of pure retail before we introduce our grown products.”
617THC received provisional licenses on both operations two years ago and are approaching their final licensure after inspections by the state Cannabis Control Commission (CCC). To get there, they faced a lot of pushback from neighbors who were skittish about anyone offering marijuana on a corner that has had challenges with illicit drug dealing and community violence. Bill said they countered the pushback with a commitment to the neighborhood, building relationships, and installing security cameras and steel mesh in the ceiling, walls and floors to thwart potential burglars.
“We’ve taken the approach of embracing this corner,” he said. “We’re really proud of the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood and want to help it nurture the growth and get better.”
The operation will have 20 full-time jobs and will hire from the immediate neighborhood and the greater Dorchester area. At the same time, Bill said, getting to the hiring process hasn’t been an easy path.
“The process to get open has been fair but arbitrary and there’s a lot of gray areas in the regulations that make for the operators to have a great task to get it right,” he said. “That seems to extend the timeline.”
Codman’s LowKey eyes late summer opening
When Jeff Similien looked around Codman Square at this time last year, he thought his LowKey Dispensary would be operational by now. But an inexperienced construction contractor set the operation back significantly, he says.
“We’ve had to adjust on the fly and get things done and do our best,” he noted. “On future projects, we’ll identify individuals with extensive experience who know what it takes to build out cannabis facilities.”
Members of the LowKey team – from left, Marven Toussaint, Jeff Similien, Sam Gerber, and Matt Dever – in front of their Codman Square location. Navigating the process took time and energy for owner Jeff Similien, but he said the biggest hold up has been “incapable” contractors and supply chain issues with construction materials. They are looking to open by late summer.
Seth Daniel photo
Having just last month received provisional licenses from the CCC for the dispensary at 571B Washington St. and a cultivation operation in Hyde Park, the first cultivation license in Boston, and with new contractors on board, Similien now expects to be open by late summer.
“It’s such a relief and a milestone,” he said. “I realize what Peyton Manning felt like when he finally beat Tom Brady that one time. That’s really how I feel. It finally happened. That first one was the trial run…I grew up in Codman Square and I’m proud we are at this point now.”
Similien attended community meetings for years to win over many neighbors and other stakeholders. Now he’s hired Sam Gerber as inventory manager, and Matt Dever as an assistant.
Gerber said they plan to offer value products at the dispensary so that customers can “walk in with a $10 bill and walk out with a quality pre-roll.” Yet they also plan to introduce a premier “Bud Bar” that will have some of the best strains of cannabis in the state available to mix and match – and pair the introduction with expert salespersons to help educate customers.
“The market is getting increasingly saturated and the stores that don’t create the best customer experience are going to find themselves in a bad situation,” Dever said. “You can’t shuffle people in and out like cattle. We want to make sure people drive past other dispensaries to come back to LowKey.”
To differentiate themselves in the growing market, Similien and Gerber have plans for their cultivation facility in Hyde Park to help them achieve “full on vertical integration down the line.” That would mean having their own brands named after neighborhoods in Boston, including “Dorchester Diesel.”
Similien also said they want to blaze a different path to cultivation, offering their facility as a shared space for other cultivators in the same way that Commonwealth Kitchen does with food. He said they have had conversations with the commercial kitchen about their model and have given serious thought to how it could be applied to cannabis growers.
“We have the possibility to do the same things with LowKey,” he said. “We’re the only one with a building and a license for cultivation. If the city of Boston and the state are ready to support this, then it’s something that would bring a lot of attention and job opportunities here.”
The hopeful view from the pipeline
Several proposals are moving along well in the process and opening is in their sights:
•The former ‘The POT’ proposal proceeded through a tough community process last year in at 532-542 River St. in Mattapan Square, getting approval of the Boston Cannabis Board and the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) afterward. They were sidetracked recently by state regulators, said co-owner Dru Ledbetter, when their name itself was ruled to be against state regulations. They have changed it to Zéb Boutique and are in the process of coming back to the community for updates.
•The Surf’s Up cannabis dispensary at 770 Gallivan Blvd. in the former Verizon store has been approved by the Boston Cannabis Board (BCB) and is waiting for a date at the ZBA. If approved there, they will advance to the state process.
•A delivery-only proposal in the Polish Triangle known as Doobie at 1 Mt. Vernon St. near the corner of Boston Street, has also received the approval of the BCB and is awaiting a ZBA hearing.