It seems like an eternity since marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts and people began talking about opening cannabis stores, but now Chelsea – just next over the Bridge from Charlestown – has seen its first adult-use store open on Nov. 10, yet it’s more than the routine story of a “pot shop.”
Western Front held a ribbon cutting ceremony on Webster Avenue in the Parkway Plaza on Nov. 10, and then become the first marijuana business to open in Chelsea and in the overall area. Western Front is an equity licensee, meaning they are minority-owned and focused in an Area of Disproportionate Impact (ADI) – meaning a place where the war on drugs hit harder than in other places. Chelsea is one of 29 ADI communities.
The 3,000 sq. ft. store in Chelsea will offer all kinds of cannabis products, including flower/buds, gummies, tinctures, edibles and oils – to name a few – in an extremely highly-regulated and safe environment. A full new buildout of the store was massive, with it being a vacant building for a long time before the partners began work on the venture.
“It was a shell when we first came in,” said owner Marvin Gilmore. “There was nothing here…We made it first-class and I think you can see that.”
Indeed the store is now a first-class operation with plenty of natural light, ample space and numerous kiosks for choosing and purchasing products. There is also a teaching and learning component of the operation on the other side of the store that will focus on educating people about marijuana and helping aspiring entrepreneurs to learn how to start their own stores.
Yet one of the most interesting things about the store is not the once-illegal, now legal, sale of marijuana to those over 21 years of age. Rather, the real story comes in the ownership – particularly Gilmore.
The owners are all three Cambridge residents, including Gilmore, Dennis Benzan and Attorney Tim Flaherty. The three Cantabrigians have been long-time friends, with Gilmore being a mentor to both for a long time.
Gilmore is a World War II veteran with a rich life story, and a life that hasn’t slowed down with age – fueled by a desire to always continue helping disadvantaged folks who might need a leg up.
There are a few reasons for that, he said, and getting into the marijuana industry as an equity applicant followed the same trajectory as when he couldn’t get a veterans home loan – and thus founded United Bank, now OneUnited – the largest black-owned bank in the United States.
Gilmore’s grandparents were born into slavery in Alabama, and he also served with distinction in World War II. Both are defining moments for him.
“My grandmother was born into slavery and lived to be 107,” he said. “My parents had come up from Alabama to Cleveland and then to Boston. They sent me down to Alabama to learn and understand how we had been treated in the past. That inspired me to work for people and to work to make change and I’ve been doing that all my life. When this opportunity came, I knew Chelsea and where it had been in the old days. We put together a team and it has gone great…This is a very, very underprivileged and poor community. If we can bring this concept to Chelsea and get this store to take off and put people to work – it’s a great idea.”
The store is not only looking to pull customers from the surrounding areas like Charlestown, but also employees who might fit the criteria and need a chance to break into this new industry.
Gilmore also served in World War II, and because he was black, he was not able to get on the airplane to come home with the white soldiers. He had to find another way home, as the white soldiers wouldn’t ride with him.
“My beginning fighting prejudice came in the army because we had two armies in World War II – the white army and the black army,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could challenge that. I wanted to change it.”
Meanwhile, once home, as a veteran he was entitled to a home loan, but they wouldn’t grant it to him – which pushed him to found the OneUnited Bank.
He currently serves on the Board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s EDIC, he’s an accomplished musician that graduated from the New England Conservatory (playing the Vibes), started the successful Cambridge nightclub Western Front, and even traveled to the Deep South with Celtic legend Bill Russell during the Civil Rights Era to “make change.”
Gilmore, who said he doesn’t smoke cannabis, said all of his life has been an “uphill battle,” and helping others get a leg up in any business – including cannabis – meshed with his long business and philanthropic career.
Benzan, the first Latino vice mayor of Cambridge and one of the only Latino liquor license holders there, said they are a team of firsts. He said he was impressed by the legislation that brought cannabis to Massachusetts – as it put a priority on minority communities, people that had been arrested disproportionately in the War on Drugs and sought to use the new industry as a way to create wealth for those that had been affected.
“Western Front and the cannabis industry was another opportunity to be first,” he said. “We have investors that reflected the minority community really like no other cannabis company in Massachusetts. We’re doing everything possible to provide opportunities for young people of color, whether Latino, African American or others. Truthfully, that’s why I’m in this and for no other reasons.”
Benzan said that’s reflected in the workforce at the store, which features many people of color and those who simply need a leg up.
“When I first came in and saw the numbers of black and brown faces, I have to say I had a little bit of emotion,” he said. “We’re going through an incredibly difficult economic pandemic, and that’s being felt mainly in the communities of color.”
General Manager Cassandra Leetz said she is one example of a Latina who has found great opportunity in the cannabis industry. Her mother came from Costa Rica and she grew up in New York. She joined the Navy and was deployed worldwide as an intelligence specialist. However, after discharged, she said she struggled to find opportunities. Employers didn’t understand her skill set or didn’t believe she had such skills, and she often found herself underemployed. That went on for many years, until Western Front took a chance on her.
“They could have brought in a cannabis industry professional from outside the state to run this, but they picked me,” she said. “It’s been an honor to do this and I’m very proud to take my experience and be able to work with the people in Chelsea and the people we’ve hired.”
Flaherty said they have truly enjoyed working the past three years to get their state and local approvals. He said he felt like their company – which is looking to expand already to Cambridge and a third, undisclosed location – embodied what an economic empowerment applicant should be. “From our investors to our staff, we have assembled what I think the state envisioned for economic empowerment candidates,” he said. “It’s exceptional.”