BENTON HARBOR — Workers started last week to transform a former aluminum smelting company in Benton Harbor into a modern medical marijuana growing and processing facility, said Bill Stohler, director of NoBo Michigan.

If the company receives all necessary approvals, NoBo will initially do business in a 32,000-square-foot building that used to be Harbor Light Metals’ maintenance building. The business is prequalified by the state. Earlier this month, Benton Harbor planning commissioners approved recommending to the City Commission the required special use permit.

Stohler said city officials are waiting for a report from their engineering company, Abonmarche, before presenting the proposal to city commissioners. City Manager Darwin Watson said previously that city commissioners will need to vote on the proposal within 45 days of the Planning Commission’s recommendation, which is by mid-July.

Stohler said fixing up the former maintenance building is just the beginning. On the other side of the 11-acre property, concrete walls are open to the air. Stohler said he was told that at one time, the company had 270,000 square feet of property under a roof at 900 Alreco Road.

“This looks a little bit like Chernobyl now,” he said as he carefully walked around the concrete walls. “This is total wasteland.”

Several deep concrete pits are full of murky water, making them look like abandoned swimming pools. Stohler said he could only guess what the concrete pits were once used for.

Many of the manhole covers on the property are gone, showing more murky water.

Stohler said almost all of the metal that was on the property was stolen to be sold as scrap metal.

“They even stole the water meters out here,” he said. “It’s been picked clean.”

Initial plans are to invest $6 million at the site and to hire 65 people, with 18 of them in management. He said first priority would be to hire Benton Harbor residents.

“This could be a decent financial windfall for (the city) as far as jobs,” he said.

He said that once the business outgrows the former maintenance building, they plan to expand into the former office building, which is about 8,000 square feet. Eventually, he said much of the property could be used to grow medical marijuana in greenhouses. He said the plants would always be grown on tables to avoid any possible contamination left behind by the industrial company.

In addition, he said they are open to letting other medical marijuana businesses use the property.

“We’re always open to opportunities,” he said. “We’re a very inclusive company.”

Stohler said the location is perfect for setting up a medical marijuana hub because it’s so close to I-94 and the railroad runs right by the property.

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.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege