A small suburb west of Worcester prepares for a pot pilgrimage
LEICESTER — The police chief has readied traffic details as part of a “special operations plan.” Overflow parking has been set aside at a garden nursery. Buses have been rented to shuttle buyers to the shop. And a food truck will feed the hungry masses waiting in line for their first legal high.
As this small wooded suburb of Worcester gets ready to host one of the first two recreational pot shops east of the Mississippi River, local officials and residents are preparing for an unusual pilgrimage the likes of which Leicester has never seen.
The closest event Police Chief James J. Hurley can compare it to is Black Friday at the local Walmart, which draws 1,700 bargain hunters every year. But at least Walmart, unlike Cultivate, the local marijuana shop, has a massive parking lot, he said.
Once Cultivate gets the final green light from state regulators in the next few days, Leicester, a conservative former mill town of 11,000, dotted with dairy and vegetable farms, could become a regional cannabis destination, along with Northampton, a liberal college town, which is expected to have its own recreational pot shop open at the same time.
“We’re either going to get everyone in the state who wants marijuana coming here, or it’s going to be half the state that wants marijuana coming here,” Hurley said, as he prepared to go over final details of the opening with a private security firm hired by Cultivate. “Either way you look at it, we’re going to have a crowd.”
The opening is the talk of the town, with many hoping that recreational marijuana will bring tax revenue and business to Leicester (pronounced Lester). The town, once known as the “cradle of the American carding industry” for its mills that separated woolen fibers, saw its last wool mill close in 1991, and a major food distribution warehouse close more recently.
Shia Grabauskas, the 49-year-old part owner of Pleasant Street Diner, said she hopes pot buyers will stop by for a meal after shopping at Cultivate, about 3 miles away.
“They’ll come here and have a lobster roll,” she said, adding the huge rolls she makes are “the best around,” and only $9.50, as a special every Friday.
“Whatever makes you hungry, right?” laughed Larry Sullivan, a 66-year-old retired plumber, who was polishing off a mug of coffee.
“The nice thing about pot is nobody is going to break up a barroom,” said Jonathan Plante, the 63-year-old owner of his own landscape company, as he sat at the counter. “The restaurants will also benefit because everyone is going to order big meals.”
Grabauskas, whose mother takes medicinal marijuana for neurofibromatosis, a disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue, said she may buy pot for herself, once it’s legal.
“I may kick back with it and a glass of wine at my house,” she said. “Why not?”
Not everyone is so bullish, however.
Some worry that recreational pot sales will bring drug users to Leicester, upsetting the town’s peaceful charm. “Are we going to get unacceptable clientele? Possibly,” said Susan Canane, the 58-year-old clerk at Jan’s Beer Mart. “Seeing is believing. We’ll see how things go.”
Leicester voters narrowly approved marijuana legalization when it passed on the statewide ballot two years ago. Nonetheless, residents were initially wary when marijuana cultivators, processors, and shops started showing interest in the town because of its widely available land and vacant factory buildings, said Town Administrator David A. Genereux.
But Cultivate, which opened as a growing operation and medicinal marijuana dispensary in November 2017, has been a good neighbor, he said.
“The medicinal facility has calmed a lot of people’s fears,” Genereux said. “Once you get used to the fact it’s here, it seems a little less frightening.”
In May, Town Meeting members overwhelmingly approved regulations allowing for recreational sales. Selectmen then approved a deal that will require Cultivate to pay the town $75,000 to $250,000 annually, depending on sales.
Sam Barber, Cultivate’s 25-year-old president and co-owner, said that as business expands, he plans to double his current workforce of 35.
“There’s been tremendous support for us, and the benefits it’s going to have in the town in terms of jobs and tax revenue,” he said.
And more pot businesses may be on the way. Two marijuana growers and a cannabis testing lab plan to open in town, and officials are working to bring two other pot growers to Leicester, Genereux said.
“Not everybody is going to be supportive of this industry, but the voters spoke, it’s going to be allowed, and it’s going to be a business, and we might as well be able to get some economic growth out of it,” he said.
Bob Pingeton, a longtime member of the Parks and Recreation Committee, said he hopes pot revenue will help him rebuild four dilapidated playgrounds, which he has been raising money for with cookouts and a “toll road” that he sets up during the Leicester Harvest Fair every September.
“It’s just ironic we’re dependent on a marijuana place to do it,” he said.
At Wayside Floral, a candy-colored shop with a pressed tin ceiling, there were more shrugs than enthusiasm for recreational pot. Christine Anderson, the owner of the shop, said she didn’t expect marijuana sales to help her business, or change the town much at all.
“People will come and go,” she said. “No different than when Walmart opened.”