Braddock looks to medical marijuana for economic boost
March 12, 2017 12:00 AM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman talks about plans for Laurel Green Medical to build a cannabis growing facility on the former Talbot Towers site in Braddock. Denise Mueller with Laurel Green Medical, the organization that will build and run the facility, and Braddock council president Tina Doose listen.
The former Talbot Towers site in Braddock. Laurel Green Medical plans to build a cannabis facility at this location if they receive one of the state permits to grow under the medical marijuana program. The five-acre site sits on an empty lot bordered by Talbot and Washington avenues.
By Steve Twedt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After more than a quarter century as a state-designated financially distressed community, Braddock may be looking at a bright, leafy future.
Tuesday night, the Braddock Borough Council is slated to consider whether to throw its support behind Sewickley-based Laurel Green Medical’s effort to secure one of two state permits in the region to establish a facility for growing and processing marijuana for medical use.
The 100,000-square-foot facility would be built on a five-acre site where the Talbot Towers housing project stood before being torn down in 1990. The property is owned by Allegheny County. Laurel Green would buy it under a lease-purchase agreement.
Greg Gamet with Denver Consulting Group, which would oversee the grow operation for Laurel Green, estimated the facility at full capacity would have about 17,000 plants from which it can cultivate 20,000 pounds of marijuana and extract 3,000 pounds of oil on a yearly basis. It will also employ 40 to 70 full-time staff and generate more than $1 million in tax revenue for a borough that has a $1.85 million annual budget.
More notably, borough officials believe the facility could single-handedly take Braddock off the state’s Act 47 rolls of financially distressed communities for the first time since June 1988.
“The demise of one industry, steel, put us in Act 47 and a new industry, medical marijuana, could pull us out of Act 47,” said Braddock Mayor John Fetterman during a visit to the site last week.
Under Act 47, communities in such economic distress that they may have trouble making payroll or financing a police force come under state oversight and must follow a recovery plan to get back on solid financial footing. They also may be eligible for grants and no-interest loans or, in Braddock’s case, adjust the earned income tax rate.
Council president Tina Doose anticipates council members will look favorably on the Laurel Green plan. “There is going to be 100 percent support for this,” she said last week.
Even then, the facility is not a done deal. Pennsylvania’s Department of Health is accepting applications for permits to grow or dispense medical marijuana through March 20 and other groups, including one in McKeesport, are vying for one of the two grower-process permits in southwestern Pennsylvania.
State officials will not say how many applications they’ve received so far for the 12 grower/processor permits and up to 27 permits to open dispensaries across six regions of Pennsylvania. They will announce successful permit applicants 90 days or so after the March 20 application deadline, and expect to have the medical marijuana program up and running by spring 2018.
Despite not having a permit in hand, Laurel Green Medical founder Denise Mueller believes the organization has a strong application, due in large part to the economic boost it presents for Braddock.
She has enlisted Steelers great Franco Harris, who has expressed his interest in long-term pain research and management, noting in a release that “the life of a professional football player is one intrinsically tied to long term pain management.”
Laurel Medical is also working with Thomas Jefferson University’s Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp in Philadelphia to coordinate their research with medical schools throughout the commonwealth.
Lester Hollis, president and CEO of Chicago-based Illinois Grown Medicine, which operates a medical grow/processing facility in Elk Grove Village, Ill., has been a key consultant for Laurel Green. He estimated the group has spent $300,000 to $400,000 already for architects, engineers, application writers and other expenses.
“It’s a very sophisticated process to get one of these licenses,” he said in a phone interview last week. “If we don’t win, all of that money is for naught so we intend to do everything we can to not let that happen.”
The state requires applicants to show they have access to $2 million to qualify for a permit; Mr. Hollis, who has an investment banking background, said, “We are going to be providing many multiples of that,” backed by what he described as “a handful” of angel investors, all from Pennsylvania.
The state limitation on the number of grow facility permits has put the city of Braddock in an enviable position. Because the selection process favors groups planning to locate in economically distressed areas, Braddock had three other suitors before deciding on Laurel Green, Ms. Doose said.
For once, businesses were clamoring to come to Braddock.
Ms. Doose grew up in the Braddock area and remembers the years when steel was still strong and the subsequent devastating crash.
She had visited friends at Talbot Towers, a 210-unit wall of apartments for low-income families in the heart of what was known as The Bottom, the site that may soon house a working greenhouse and headquarters for Laurel Green Medical.
Braddock has been struggling for decades and, as a council member, she recalled the “just devastating” impact of the 2010 closure of UPMC Braddock Hospital. “It was like ripping the heart out of our community. We needed something big to change that dynamic.”
Today, a 23-unit low-income housing complex has opened on the old hospital site, for which the borough received close to 400 applications. Many of those applicants made too much money to qualify for a place, Ms. Doose said, which she takes as evidence of Braddock’s growing appeal as a place to live.
But the prospect of a new major medical marijuana grow and processing facility — with its potential for new jobs and tax revenue that might allow Braddock to lower its millage rate — takes her hope to a whole new level.
“I do believe this industry could totally change our community.”
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.