Arcata and pot. Are they, or aren't they?
In 2014, the city started collecting a tax for high electricity use, a move clearly targeting residential grow houses. The council's relationship with dispensaries has been all over the map since medical marijuana was legalized in 1996, culminating in a cap on the number of dispensaries allowed in the city.
But now, with the winds of statewide legalization at the city's back, a decidedly pot-friendly idea is germinating: the Arcata Marijuana Industrial Complex.
When legalization (most likely) plops into California's lap next year, the cannabis retail sector is expected to explode with buds and concentrates, food and candies, and tinctures, lip balms and lotions.
With legalization will come a greater need for oversight of those products, and a greater expectation from customers that the food, smoke and cosmetics they're consuming are prepared and labeled properly. It's in that notion that Economic Development Director Larry Oetker sees Arcata's next big opportunity.
Arcata has a "long history as the niche manufacturing capital of Humboldt County," Oetker says.
The city's Aldergrove Industrial Park makes for an attractive business setting, and Oetker says the city's success with a kitchen facility for blossoming food companies gives Arcata an edge in attracting manufacturers of marijuana-infused goodies.
But ganja brownies can't be cooked in the city's existing facility — there's too much risk of cross contamination with non-mind-altering snacks.
However, just around the corner on West End Road, between the U.S. Highway 101 underpass and the Aldergrove Industrial Park, lies the dying carcass of the Humboldt Flakeboard plant. Massive, abandoned and littered with debris, it's an eyesore, but it's brimming with possibility, Oetker says.
With 170,000 square feet, the site could host a variety of growing and processing facilities. Oetker points out that it's not next to residential areas, schools or other "sensitive users" that might be impacted by marijuana businesses.
And, Oetker says, "From an economic development standpoint ... the best policy is to cluster similar business types together. Synergy."
The Mad River Union first reported the city's interest in the site on April 8.
A paranoid person might think Arcata — fighter of chain restaurants — is pushing out mom-and-pop growers in favor of big agribiz. But Oetker insists that his vision is all about small businesses.
To make a community marijuana processing plant work, the city would need to increase its cap on legal pot companies, he says (it currently stands at four) for small companies and kitchen-based hobbies to start up.
"Arcata's whole strategy has been to encourage as many businesses as it can possibly generate and encourage them to grow and stay local," he says.
With help from Oetker and other staff, the shape of Arcata's position in the marijuana industry is up to the city's council members. They will be the ones to decide whether to lift caps and ease permitting for marijuana businesses, and change zoning at sites.
And with recreational marijuana still illegal in California, the city has to approach all considerations from a medical angle.
Still, Oetker says he thinks the council is thinking ahead and that council members will take up the topic soon. The economic development committee is preparing a report looking at the what-ifs of legalization.
"I can tell you here's is a great deal of interest from people that would like to locate their [medical marijuana] businesses in Arcata," Oetker says, though he declines to name names.
"At this point I am almost ready to provide a recommendation that the council establish this area. But the council sets the policy. ... I cannot get ahead of the council on this issue."