City selects top four candidates

BY ANGELINA MARTIN

After receiving over 30 proposals from candidates vying for a spot as one of Turlock’s four future dispensaries, City staff this week announced the retail cannabis businesses they’ve invited to operate in town.

Following the City Council’s approval of a cannabis pilot program in May, a June meeting at City Hall saw over 70 interested parties convene to hear more information on the selection and application process for opening a commercial cannabis business in Turlock, whether it be retail, manufacturing, testing or distribution. The City then accepted 40 Request for Qualifications packets from commercial cannabis stakeholders, 32 of which were proposals for retail dispensary locations.

Last week, a panel consisting of City Manager Bob Lawton, Assistant to the City Manager for Economic Development and Housing Maryn Pitt and Director of Municipal Services Michael Cooke interviewed each of the 32 dispensary respondents in addition to evaluating and scoring each respondent’s RFQ proposal, ultimately selecting four companies that will be able to apply to operate within City limits: Firehouse, Evergreen, Perfect Union and MedMen.

The sheer volume of original respondents made the selection process difficult, City Attorney Doug White said, as a majority of candidates were well-qualified. However, this led the panel to select a top four that is the best of the best, White explained, with each company ranking as the number one dispensary in their respective markets.

“Frankly, the whole top 10 was pretty amazing,” White said. “The competition is stiff when you get 32 people who apply…anyone who hasn’t had significant cannabis experience beforehand, it was going to be almost impossible to make the cut just because of the level of competition. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The City of Turlock is the 10th city White has helped develop a cannabis ordinance for. Companies who have been approved in other towns, like JDI Farms which operates in Patterson, Empire and Oakdale, came up short in Turlock, finishing behind the selected companies that have anywhere from $10 million to $100 million in their bank accounts, according to White.

Of the four selected companies, Firehouse is the only locally-owned dispensary conglomerate, operating Patient Care First in Ceres, Phenos in Modesto and Flavors in Riverbank. The stores are the top-producing locations in Stanislaus County, which helped their standings in the competitive interview process, White said. The dispensaries that came in fifth through 10th will be next in line if one of the top four is disqualified or withdraws from the process.

“It’s unlikely,” White said. “They’ve fought so hard for this.”

Evergreen is the number one producing cannabis retail business in Washington and a store in Turlock would be not only their first venture into the California market, but would likely also become their headquarters for the state. The company has an “outdoorsy, REI,” vibe to it, White said, contributing to the interviewing panel’s goal of appealing to different demographics with each unique dispensary.

Perfect Union has dispensaries in areas like Lake Tahoe, Morro Bay and Sacramento and is a company that has been operating for much longer than many of the other candidates, White explained. White described MedMen as the “Apple store” of dispensaries. MedMen operates stores across the United States and has more of a corporate look than other dispensaries. The panel thought MedMen would bring something unique to Turlock that can’t be found in other towns thanks to its sleek appearance.

White was surprised at not only the number of proposals the City received, but the sheer caliber of the interested candidates. While several locally-owned dispensaries weren’t chosen, White explained that the selected candidates were simply too experienced, too knowledgeable and too reliable to pass up.

Developing a cannabis pilot program much later than other cities actually gave Turlock an advantage, he added, with a list of already-established candidates to choose from.

“I thought going into this Turlock would be severely disadvantaged…but it had the opposite effect,” he said. “This is probably three times more competitive than the Modesto process…people who were approved in Modesto weren’t even in our top 10.”

Potential locations that the four dispensaries included in their RFQs were Lander Avenue and West Main Street, to name two, though official locations will be included in each business’ forthcoming application. While downtown dispensary zoning was recently approved by the Planning Commission, the City Council has yet to take action on the item. If approved, White said it’s likely at least one of the dispensaries will attempt to set up shop downtown.

“Ideally, I think if you’re going to have four and if they can find the right building and right parking situation, it would be at an appropriate place to put it,” White said.

White advised anyone worried about out-of-towners establishing cannabis businesses in Turlock to think about quality.

“I think you always are conscious of the fact there may be backlash. I don’t see anybody saying let’s not have Target or Costco in town…this isn’t just your ordinary business. The amount of money people have to be willing to invest to be able to be legally compliant and stay legally compliant makes it almost unattainable for most folks, and there’s a barrier of entry for people who have never been in the business before,” White said. “There’s a benefit of having people who are number one in every place they’ve been, who have operated for years on end.”

Next, the four selected candidates will submit applications for Conditional Use Permits to operate their dispensaries in Turlock and create development agreements with the City, which have to be approved by the Planning Commission before going before the City Council. White has stated previously that he expects Turlock’s first dispensaries to be open by January.