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Small town hopes to rescue itself by selling pot

Conrad Wilson Mar 20, 2015
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Small town hopes to rescue itself by selling pot

Conrad Wilson Mar 20, 2015
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North Bonneville, Washington, is surrounded by forests on one side. On the other is the Columbia River. 

“There is one gas station. There is one restaurant. There is a golf course. And there is the Bonneville Hot Springs Hotel,” says John Spencer, the former city administrator. Now he’s a consultant. And with some exceptions, he’s just described most of the town’s economy.

A few years ago, the town of about 1,000 people stopped watering parks and other public places to save money. And a few months ago, it started turning off streetlights to cut down on its electricity bill.

“The city is on its knees financially. They have run negative numbers in the general fund multiple months in a row because they have no retail sector here,” Spencer says. “This store could very well make a town that is otherwise going to fail.”

The store Spencer is talking about is The Cannabis Corner: the first recreational pot shop in the country run by a government.  

It opened earlier this month. Technically, the city doesn’t own it. Rather, it set up a public development authority to run it.

“In the headlines, everybody wants to say it’s a city-owned pot shop, which, I guess, I leave for the lawyers,” says North Bonneville Mayor Don Stevens, who embraces the title of “The Marijuana Mayor,” right down to the personalized license plates he’s ordered for his car that read “MJMAYOR.” 

“I guess technically, on some level, it is.” Stevens says there was a strong likelihood of a pot shop opening in the town anyway. So the city decided to open its own store to have more control over how it’s operated.

“Whereas if a private person came in and opened a store and it wasn’t working out in the community’s best interest, we’d have a really long, ugly path to try and straighten that situation out,” Stevens says. He says all the profits from North Bonneville’s pot shop will go back to the community, by partnering the shop with the city on projects.

“While it can’t just deposit its profit directly into our general fund, (it) can as a separate corporation, help us defray costs with law-enforcement contracts, public health and safety programs, any number of things that ultimately will have a positive affect on our bottom line,” he says.

Right now, the city’s annual budget is $1.2 million. Officials think The Cannabis Corner could eventually bring in half a million dollars in profit every year.

That’s big money here. After the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s, tourism became the county’s main industry.

Casey Roeder, the executive director of the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce, says the town’s pot shop adds another reason for people to visit.

“It’s an amenity, in my mind, just as a winery or brewery,” she says. “The cannabis store in North Bonneville just adds to that whole menu of options for folks to come and spend money.”

And Roeder says if people come here and see the region’s natural beauty and lifestyle, they just may want to move here and bring their business with them.

 

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