Alumnus Yin-Ho Lai had spent nearly $1 million on the construction of his new recreational marijuana business, when the hum of bulldozers suddenly stopped.
On Monday, Sept. 28, the Bellingham City Council voted unanimously to set that hum abuzz again.
The council approved an amendment allowing new marijuana stores to continue construction if a facility frequented by children opens up 100 feet from their location after they have been issued a building permit.
The amendment reversed the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board’s ruling last week, which required Lai to halt construction of his marijuana retail store, Trove Cannabis, because an arcade had also opened on North Samish Way.
Marijuana retail stores cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, recreation center, public park, public transit center, library or game arcade, according to Bellingham’s industrial zoning regulations.
However, Lai had already obtained his building permit before the arcade moved into the area.
Now, Trove Cannabis will resume construction, while co-owners Lai and Stephen Reed, whom both studied accounting at Western, dip their feet into the marijuana industry for the first time.
It was a decision the business partners made following Washington’s legalization of marijuana in 2012, imagining the possibilities a new industry and an old dirt lot could offer, Lai said.
“When we found a vacant lot at 218 North Samish Way, immediately our eyes just lit up with a dozen opportunities for us to build a business from the ground up,” Lai said.
Although the 1,000 feet rule is still in place for unlicensed marijuana businesses searching for a location, council member Pinky Vargas predicted less state regulations in the future.
“The state had to be very safety conscious when this first came out. However, the state has already said that we can make changes to this rule so it makes sense for the City of Bellingham to take that step,” Vargas said.
Still, marijuana stores can only be located in designated industrial and commercial zones in Bellingham. This leaves few locations for retailers to choose from.
Top Shelf Cannabis, the first recreational marijuana store to open in Washington, chose their location off Interstate 5 in Bellingham for ease in working with the city, store manager Zack Henifin said.
“Our location was chosen here because it’s out of the way a little bit, and sometimes people will park next door because they don’t want to be seen going into our shop buying marijuana,” Henifin said.
Stigma surrounding marijuana is simply a reality of the business Lai expects as he opens Trove Cannabis. But that doesn’t distill his passion.
“A lot of people might not like the marijuana business, but for us, we’re business people and we want to show what we can do for the industry, and to change the perception of it,” Lai said.
Western junior Alex Essenberg said while he believes regulations should keep a buffer between schools and marijuana stores, he would like to see more cannabis options throughout Bellingham.
“You can find a Starbucks anywhere, but a dispensary you really have to hunt for,” Essenberg said.
Henifin said they plan to expand their stores soon to some undisclosed locations throughout Bellingham.
With all the green in the marijuana industry — over $8 million in Whatcom County’s sale so far — city and state officials are counting on the tax revenue generated by local businesses like Top Shelf and Trove Cannabis.