BH marijuana grow operation clears latest hurdle

The former Alreco property in Benton Harbor is pictured last year.

BENTON HARBOR — A proposed marijuana growing operation in Benton Harbor took another step toward becoming a reality Tuesday, with the city planning commission unanimously recommending that a special use permit be approved by city commissioners.

“We felt it was the right thing to do,” to propose the facility in Benton Harbor as a way to stimulate the local economy, explained Alan Bonsett, founder and CEO of NoBo Michigan, which plans to invest $6 million at the site at 900 Alreco Road. “We want to make it a success story the community can rally behind.”

NoBo Michigan has applied to Benton Harbor for four medical marijuana licenses – two for Class C growers, one for a processing center and one for a provisioning center. The provisioning center would be located at a different site. The company can grow up to 1,500 marijuana plants for each Class C growers license it receives.

The project has state approval, and now will need a thumbs up from Benton Harbor commissioners to come to final fruition.

Bill Stohler, director of NoBo Michigan, said his company will hire 65 people, with 18 of them in management and 47 in processing and distribution. He said the first priority for jobs and contracts will be given to Benton Harbor residents and businesses.

They pledged “a living wage” for employees, but didn’t anticipate that health or other benefits would be available until the second year of operation.

The Alreco property was foreclosed on by the Berrien County treasurer’s office due to nonpayment of property taxes three years in a row, and was turned over to the county’s Land Bank when it didn’t sell at the county auction in 2017.

NoBo agreed to buy the property for $450,000.

“I feel like we’re overpaying for the property,” that has been vacant for a long time and has been available for $50 for the past three years, Bonsett said. But he still thinks it will turn out to be a good investment.

Bonsett said NoBo plans to be a growing and distribution center for other marijuana retailers in Michigan, and the 11-acre property is large enough to accommodate other growers in the future.

The city of Benton Harbor is missing out on more than $15,000 a year in taxes by leaving the property vacant, and the school district is losing $4,500 a year, according to the county treasurer, Stohler said.

Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski has said that based on NoBo’s estimates, Benton Harbor will receive an additional $100,000 in annual property taxes from the property, with $54,000 going to the general fund and the rest going to the Twin Cities Area Transportation Authority, Benton Harbor Library and the city’s retirement fund.

As to the desire to boost Benton Harbor’s economy, Commissioner Eddie Marshall asked “Why now?”

“Why not Benton Harbor?” Bonsett responded. “The more we’re here, the more we make friends.”

Stohler has had ties to the region for 35 years, including a business in Cassopolis, he said.

Several residents spoke in favor of the proposal. Jerry Edwards pointed out that NoBo is one of only two groups to invest in the city before getting a final go-ahead.

“It’s going to come, regardless,” Edwards said.

One letter was read in opposition, calling the plan “a bird in the hand” that could prevent a manufacturer from locating at the site.

City Manager Darwin Watson noted that the site has been vacant since 2007.

Stohler asked that a special meeting of city commissioners be called to quickly finalize the deal and get things rolling. Watson said that the plans will need to be reviewed by the city engineer before being forwarded, with a maximum of 45 days until the final vote.

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