Bridgeport City’s taste for pot slow to grow
BRIDGEPORT — Six years after state lawmakers legalized medical marijuana, the hot industry has, with the exception of a company that manufactures growing equipment, been kept out of Connecticut’s largest city.
Now Bridgeport officials may have another chance. The state Department of Consumer Protection recently received 73 applications for a maximum of 10 dispensary permits — the first new permits available since 2013 and 2014.
“My guess is there are certainly a number (of applicants) from Bridgeport, based anecdotally on who has called over the last six months for information,” said Catherine Blinder, a spokeswoman for that agency.
Bridgeport economic development staff confirmed they were approached about a month ago by an unidentified group interested in opening a dispensary.
Supporters say that besides offering help to patients suffering from a growing list of ailments, medical marijuana businesses create jobs and pay rent, local property taxes and annual $5,000 fees to the state. Sales tax is not imposed.
It would seem that the administration of Mayor Joe Ganim, given his support as a gubernatorial candidate for legalizing marijuana statewide, would welcome medical pot purveyors to Bridgeport. Yet the city may still not be ready to embrace medical marijuana.
No plan in place
The Planning & Zoning Commission, in May 2014, unanimously established a yearlong moratorium on accepting any applications from industry. The stated goal was to come up with a strategy for reviewing pot proposals, including where growing facilities and dispensaries might best be situated to avoid the public outcry that helped sink prior applications.
The zoning board had previously rejected controversial proposals for three dispensaries, but approved local businessman Jo Palmieri’s application to grow marijuana.
Palmieri, however, did not receive his state license to operate. And zoning officials never drafted a medical marijuana plan in preparation for this second licensing round from the state.
“Nothing ever happened,” Zoning Commissioner Anne Pappas Phillips recalled last week.
Another commission member, Reginald Walker, said, “I think most commissioners thought, ‘We’re never going to find a suitable site.’
“I’m open to discussion on it,” Walker said. “Most neighborhoods will probably all say ‘not in my backyard.’ ”
Back in 2013 and ’14, then-Mayor Bill Finch and David Kooris, his economic development chief, were initially open to the medical marijuana industry. At the time, Finch even lamented the opposition from some Zoning Commissioners: “Part of it’s my fault. I appoint them.”
But as residents began to mobilize against the pot proposals — arguing they could draw crime and otherwise harm neighborhoods — Finch ultimately supported the moratorium.
One individual who had considered opening a dispensary in Bridgeport recalled feeling “villainized.”
“They were not forward thinkers on this,” said this person, who wished to remain anonymous. “They missed out on the bandwagon.”
Mayor vs. candidate
Ganim, elected in late 2015, said in an interview last week he is open to hosting dispensaries in town. But the mayor did not sound like he was going out of his way to make it happen.
“These are project-specific, site-specific,” Ganim said. “It will go through a process. Assuming it meets all the requirements, it has to be up to the Zoning Commission.”
In contrast, Ganim’s gubernatorial campaign recently touted his enthusiastic support for “legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational marijuana in Connecticut.”
“It is long past time we in this country acknowledged that attitudes about marijuana have changed dramatically and it is time for us, too, in this land of steady habits, to change with it,” candidate Ganim declared.
William Coleman, deputy director of planning and economic development in Bridgeport, met four to six weeks ago with a group that is considering Bridgeport for a dispensary.
“They spent most of the time talking about their credentials,” Coleman said. “They just wanted to present themselves as a credible group. But they didn’t disclose much about their particular plans.”
Coleman’s boss, Tom Gill, said with Bridgeport readying to draft a new master plan of development, medical marijuana could be part of that discussion.
“Anything that is legalized and is a benefit to the city, whether it be in the form of employment, tax revenue or other types of revenue, we certainly welcome it and would look at very strongly,” Gill said.
Bridgeport has not totally missed out on the medical marijuana boom. EnviroGrow, which manufactures grow rooms, dry and cure rooms, regulated extraction labs and more for sale nationwide and overseas, is headquartered in the city.
EnviroGrow partner Dan Williams said he would gladly consult with city officials on the benefits of medical marijuana to try and do away with the stigma.
“It’s only a win-win, especially when you have a place like Bridgeport which, frankly, needs additional tax revenue,” Williams said. “It’s fully regulated. It’s a business like any other.”
And it is not going away. Blinder said 25,111 medical marijuana patients are registered with the state and the number of total prescribing physicians has ballooned since 2013-14 from 80 to over 800.
Blinder said the Department of Consumer Protection hoped to announced the recipients of the new round of dispensary permits in the coming months.
“We want to do it as quickly as possible and efficiently as possible because people have an investment, leases, security,” he said. “But we also want to make sure we’re doing it with the highest sense of integrity.”