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Founders hope Chelsea marijuana store will be an engine of opportunity

Marvin Gilmore (right), co-founder of Western Front, assists a customer on opening day in the Chelsea store.
Marvin Gilmore (right), co-founder of Western Front, assists a customer on opening day in the Chelsea store.Athel Rogers

Chelsea’s first recreational marijuana shop hopes it can do more for the city than simply meeting the local demand for cannabis.

Western Front, which opened Nov. 3, is among the few stores owned by people of color in the state’s new adult marijuana industry. Its founders want the business to not only thrive but become a source of economic opportunity for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

About 87 percent of the store’s 36 employees are people of color. Starting wage for the workers, nearly all of whom had to be trained because they are new to the industry, is $18 per hour.

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“Chelsea is a community where a lot of families are struggling, so for us this is an opportunity to be active in the city and to help create jobs,” said the firm’s CEO, Dennis A. Benzan, a former Cambridge deputy mayor who owns La Fabrica Central, a Latin cuisine restaurant and jazz lounge in Cambridge.

Benzan, now of Watertown, cofounded Western Front with Cambridge resident Marvin E. Gilmore, a World War II veteran and civil rights activist who founded the former Western Front jazz and reggae night club in Cambridge, after which the new business is named.

“He’s a local legend with a rich history of firsts and achievements,” Benzan said of Gilmore, renowned in Greater Boston as an entrepreneur, adviser, and mentor.

Benzan said when he called Gilmore in 2018 to see if he might want to join him in starting the cannabis business, Gilmore readily agreed, but not because of any particular interest in the product. “It was more about creating investment opportunities and jobs for people of color,” Benzan said.

Led by the two founders, Western Front put together a diverse ownership team, a majority of whom are Black or Latino.

Cassandra Leetz, a Navy veteran who is the store’s general manager, said she is grateful to have been chosen for the role despite having no previous experience in the cannabis industry.

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Noting that a large majority of workers in the field are white males, Leetz, who is from a Costa Rican background, said, “This is a great opportunity for myself as a woman, a veteran, and a minority to get into what is considered one of the hottest industries in the country.”

Western Front occupies leased space on Chelsea’s Webster Avenue, selling marijuana cultivated by other firms. As with other retailers, it is following strict COVID-19 safety guidelines.

The store, which features a front lobby and a spacious showroom, seeks to offer a “really fun and hip atmosphere,” Leetz said, with background reggae, hip-hop, and jazz music, and wall displays of local art works.

“I’m happy to see them in the city,” City Councilor at large Leo Robinson said. “They’ve hired a number of Chelsea people, who are learning the business. This gives them an opportunity to grow with Western Front and pursue future opportunities in the industry.” He said the city also will receive 3 percent of the store’s sales revenue, following state law.

The new store faces the dual challenges of opening amid a pandemic and trying to compete with established stores. But Benzan is cautiously optimistic.

“We consider ourselves a strong company with a strong mindset,” he said, adding that its key task now is to make people aware of the store and its broader community mission.

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Gilmore, who at 96 remains active and often stops by the store, is enthused by the new enterprise.

“It’s going to help this community,” he said in a statement. “These young people have a way to get money in their pockets and buy homes here. Chelsea was one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts and look at it now. With all it’s achieved, it’s elegant. The sun is shining and the Lord is with us and it’s a new day.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.