The public port districts at Willapa Harbor and Shelton have fully embraced the potential of pot-growing and processing facilities under the state’s new recreational marijuana laws, approving leases to fill up longtime empty warehouses.
But the Port of Grays Harbor still won’t touch it, with a moratorium on all aspects of marijuana facilities in place since November. And it’s unlikely to be removed anytime soon, said Port Executive Director Gary Nelson.
“I think it’s great that the ports at Shelton and Raymond are able to take advantage of the situation, but we, frankly, don’t need it,” Nelson said. “It’s not the highest and best use for property around here.”
The moratorium has enabled the Port to turn away prospective tenants looking for warehouse space.
Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon says the Port is missing the big picture here and points at the long-time empty warehouses at the Satsop Business Park as perfect evidence that maybe the Aberdeen and Hoquiam areas don’t need the business, but the Elma area could use a shot in the economic arm and “the Port is sticking its head in the sand ignoring an opportunity here.”
“Frankly, I regret that the county ever let the Port take control of the business park,” said Gordon, who has been highly critical of the Port in recent months over a variety of things.
The business park was run by a Public Development Authority and owned by the county until December of 2012, when the Port took it over.
The county’s ordinance on placing marijuana growing, processing and retail outlets contain zoning recommendations to allow growers and processing facilities at the Satsop Business Park. If the Port commissioners ever revoke their moratorium, the county is ready to let it be used for that purpose.
Port Manager Rebecca Chaffee at Willapa Harbor says there’s been so much interest in their facilities that they’ve run out of space and have had to turn away potential tenants.
“Our buildings are filled,” said Chaffee. The Port is already receiving around $16,000 a month in rent from the leases, some of which were signed as recently as January.
“I see us having a really crazily busy year,” said Chaffee, citing the fact that licenses will be issued in March and those who receive them will need to finish production within a year. “There’s a lot of work to be done to get everyone settled in.”
Before Initiative 502 and the influx of hopeful marijuana producers to Pacific County, things were “about to get really grim” in terms of economic opportunities for the Port, Chaffee said. She estimates new marijuana-based jobs from the groups contracted with the Port could eventually total about 200. She was notified in November of 2012 that the company HaloSource would be vacating five of the Port’s buildings and said despite a lot of effort to bring viable groups into the Port at that time, there simply was not interest for industrial space in Raymond from other business.
Chaffee says looking back, the idea of marijuana production should have been something the Port of Willapa Harbor pursued as soon as I-502 passed.
“It’s something we hadn’t really thought about. It’s an economic opportunity. I’ve been living in this town for many years and there are not a lot of them,” she said. “I’m anxious to delve into this. I think it will add a positive new dimension to this community, add a social and cultural arm to our community. There aren’t a lot of reasons for new people to come here.”
It was not until Seattle-based entrepreneur Marcus Charles contacted them in February of 2013 that the Port considered the possibility. Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, had guided Charles toward Pacific County when a site in Mason County didn’t work out. Blake, who represents the 19th District, including all of Pacific County, said he was not aware of the recently evolved nature of things at the Port, but that “on it’s face, it sounds like some good news.”
Media coverage of Charles’ plans in Pacific County, where the Port was the first government body in the state to sign a lease with a cannabis entrepreneur, inspired an “avalanche of calls” to Chaffee from potential producers wondering about how much the Port was charging for its remaining space.
Most of the Port’s nicer available buildings are being leased at 40 cents per square foot, some buildings that are not insulated or don’t have much electrical wiring are leased at 30 cents a square foot.
“If I had known how much in demand they would have been, I would have raised the rent,” she said, adding that despite heading into unknown territory, she is glad there was someone like Charles to bring the possibility to their attention early.
Lessees are required by state law to have what Raymond Police Chief Chuck Spoor calls “pretty stringent” security standards, like 24/7 camera monitoring. As far as collective gardens go, he said they are currently just making sure existing businesses meet state law, adding all of the people he has worked with thus far have been “very professional.”
“I haven’t seen anything shady at all,” he said, adding he plans to treat the production in the area as if there were a “winery or distillery” locating there — and does not foresee any increased crime or drug use due to the influx.
Scott Pearson with Raymond’s Public Works department has been processing recreational applications and working with Chaffee and medical marijuana producers coming onto industrial property in ensuring everything — such as plumbing, electrical, fire codes and security — is in place.
“I think it’s gonna be huge,” grower Richard Montoure says. “I think Raymond’s the spot. If they let guys like me do my thing, we’ll blow it up, create some jobs and hone our skills. We’re all just in search of the perfect product.”
At the Port of Shelton, its commissioners have also embraced the idea, approving their second lease with a cannabis production and processing company on March 4.
“They have the right to lease it and take their chances,” Port Commissioner Tom Wallitner told the Mason County Journal.
The lease with ABI Management is for a 10,000-square-foot building and 3.5 acres of land on the port’s Johns Prairie property. The five-year lease requires ABI to pay the port $3,272 per month.
It’s the second lease approved by the Port of Shelton. In February, the Port approved leasing a 30,000-square-foot building with M&R Distributing, which also plans to process and grow marijuana, at a cost of $7,857.
“I spent 34 years of my life in a society where the use of this substance was illegal,” Port Commissioner Dick Taylor told the Mason County Journal. “To even discuss this is hard for me.”
However, the lease was approved unanimously.
With the rental of both buildings, the Port of Shelton only has half of a 5,000-square-foot building left available for lease.
The Satsop Business Park, operated by the Port of Grays Harbor, certainly has the capacity and the capability under county zoning laws to hold a potential marijuana grower or processor, if the Port ever let it happen.
There’s a 50,000-square-foot warehouse “with grade height and dock height freight doors” that have a 20-foot eave height and a 50-foot-by- 100-foot clean span construction, according to Satsop’s website. As it happens, the warehouse is adjacent to a 16,400-square-foot office space “available for support services,” the website states.
The business park also has a 17,500-square-foot warehouse that continues to be empty.
There’s plenty of other empty space around the business park, as well. BMT Northwest closed its doors at the Turbine Building. There’s still no operator to be found for the old NewWood facility. The Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council, a regional job placement agency had been renting office space at the business park, left its office for new digs in Thurston County last fall. Plus, there’s the old SafeHarbor building, which has sat empty for years — most recently used as home to the Wine and Seafood Festival.
And the infrastructure is there, including a new multi-million-dollar sewer treatment facility that will be constructed soon, paid for by a state grant.
Business Park Manager Alissa Shay says the smaller warehouse has power inside and a hose bib out front but no water in the building. The larger 50,000-square foot warehouse has power to it and the Port is ready to customize the building to a customer’s needs, she said.
The larger warehouse was built in 2010 using a $1 million loan from the state Community Economic Revitalization Board.
The county commissioners had given the OK for the loan back in 2006 and approved the conditions to pay it back, under the hopes that someone would eventually locate in the building and it could be outfitted to their specifications. There were hopes that as many as three businesses would find their home in the warehouse.
But none of that ever worked out. Commissioner Gordon says the county is paying $70,000 per year to re-pay that loan out of a pot of money that could be used to build “real infrastructure to attract real businesses,” he says.
“I’m not so sure why the Port would just turn away businesses that other ports have embraced,” Gordon said. “Is their money too good for us? Maybe the Port should take over the loan and start paying it themselves, if that’s the case. They should at least bring in enough money to cover that.”
Nelson explains that the Port doesn’t want to take the risk of angering the federal government.
Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has provided clear guidance as to the way the states of Colorado and Washington should enact their state laws allowing recreational marijuana, there’s fear that the federal government could change its mind.
“We depend a lot on federal money and at this point, regardless on what the U.S. Attorney says today in a memo, the federal law is still against marijuana,” Port Commissioner Jack Thompson says. “We would not want to do something as important as the dredging and then have some kind of issue with the federal government. … You cannot guarantee me that you can’t have some kind of repercussion to it.”
Thompson says that if the federal government legalizes marijuana, he might change his mind.
“We’re moving on the side of caution at this point,” Thompson said. “Nothing is cast in stone.”
“We have millions of dollars that could be at risk,” Nelson said. “We depend on the $10 million they provide for dredging in the channel.”
Asked about the potential use of empty warehouses at Satsop, Nelson replies, “I’m not that desperate.”
Gordon says he’s hoping to arrange a meeting with the Port to convince them differently, noting there’s a potential for jobs at the site. A grower east of Oakville paid a crew $20 per hour to harvest a marijuana crop recently.
Nelson told the Elma City Council last week that he saw a potential for more energy-related development up at the business park. There’s already one natural gas facility at the business park run by Grays Harbor Energy.
“One of the things we’re seeing is the whole energy economy industry in our country is changing,” Nelson said. “It’s going through a whole big transition from a net importer to a net exporter and along with that there’s other commodities that come out — natural gas, propane gas, just a whole bunch of other things.”
He predicted the Fuller Hill-based business park could become home for an industrial or manufacturing industry that involves natural gas or byproducts of this transition.
“We’re starting to see inquiries about natural gas, methane,” he said. “That’s probably the next wave of interest we’ll see on the site because it has natural gas, water and a lot of utilities already there.”
The Port of Grays Harbor isn’t alone in banning marijuana facilities. The Port of Bremerton banned marijuana production and other uses back in January, citing the federal law.
“The world is an ever-changing place,” Bremerton Port Commissioner Axel Strakeljahn told the Bremerton Patriot. “But for the time being we need to take this action.”
The port commissioners at the Port of Chehalis haven’t adopted a moratorium, but did reject an application for a potential marijuana grower, according to a port official. The Port of Olympia has not approved any leases, but has not adopted a moratorium either, an official there said. The issue of marijuana-related leases has simply not come up yet.
“There is not a consistent policy, different ports are dealing with this issue in different ways,” said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association. “Some have addressed it aggressively and have said they don’t want it to be in their business plan and some say it is part of their economic model and probably the majority of ports have not done one thing or another. It’s just not been a big policy issue and have left it alone.”
Johnson said Grays Harbor did take a “pretty rare step” in actually amending the Port’s lease policy to prohibit the lease of port property for the cultivation, processing or sale of marijuana products. Besides Bremerton, Johnson said he’s not aware of other ports that taken that route.
“I say that with the caveat that we haven’t done a survey of every port across the state,” he said.
Still, a much more conservative area such as the Port of Douglas County near Wenatchee is considering allowing marijuana production and processing facilities. But, they want to conduct a public hearing on the matter first, according to a press release from that port.
Public hearings aren’t mandatory for ports to consider a moratorium on who they do business with. Grays Harbor never conducted a public hearing on the matter.
Daily World reporter Sam Luvisi contributed to this story.