Going from a literal cannabis desert, with only one legal delivery service in the entire city, to being the home of a 29-acre “cannabis super center” that is slated to become a hotspot for stoner tourism, is a huge leap for Barstow. But that is exactly what’s brewing for this mid-sized town in the heart of California’s Mojave Desert.
What exactly will this pot super center consist of? When will it be open and operational? And what do the locals have to say about all this? In short, this project has been controversial from the very beginning, and it seems the drama is just getting started.
Weed in the Mojave
California’s Mojave Desert has had a complicated and tumultuous relationship with cannabis for quite some time. First of all, it’s a very desolate region with multiple state and national parks and a lot of empty, baron land. The population density is low and as a result, there are not very many cannabis dispensaries in the area. Plus, due to local ordinances, most of the existing ones are delivery services. It’s not easy to find a legally operating, storefront cannabis retail store in the high desert.
It is worth noting that most of the region is more politically conservative, so residents have been slow to accept cannabis-related businesses anyway. Although there are a large number of cannabis users in the Mojave (much like pretty much anywhere in the US), the idea of opening the doors to full-blown pot enterprise raises some concerns among locals and city officials.
Illegal grow ops have been an ongoing problem in the high desert, and one that makes people even more reluctant to loosen restrictions on the industry. Complaints lodged against these black-market growers include increased crime and danger in the community, the undercutting of existing legal cannabis businesses (as few as they may be), negative environmental impact, and the list goes on.
What is possibly topping people’s list of fears is the issue of water use, which has already been a topic of discussion over the last few years as population numbers tick upwards and tourism in the area continues to climb. As a true desert with little precipitation and sparse periods of humidity, getting water to the existing residents is already a problem that no one wants to think about. Add to that, over one thousand unlicensed cannabis grows have been discovered out there in the past few years.
This is why very few pot farm plans are actually approved in the Mojave. Think, if each of farm is producing 1,000 pounds per acre (at least), they’re harvesting anywhere from two to six times each year, and it takes about 150 gallons of water to grow one pound of weed… what does that mean for the future of the high desert, its wildlife, and its residents?
29-acre pot super center in the works
In a particularly contentious meeting held on Thursday, December 22nd, 2022, Barstow’s city council voted 3-1 in favor of the cannabis super center. The development is slated to sit one of California’s busiest stretches of highway – the I15 which connects most Southern California cities to Las Vegas, with Barstow being roughly halfway between LA and Sin City. The project needs to pass a second vote this month (January 2023) before it is completely approved, but it’s expected to go through.
The 330,000-square-foot development will take over the Factory Merchants of Barstow outlet mall site, which has been sitting nearly empty for about 16 years now. Many cannabis-industry stakeholders have invested millions of dollars and years of time applying for licensing, doing construction work to retrofit the buildings for their needs, and aggressively marketing the center. Not to mention, it has been reported that developers already signed a 10-year lease with the option to extend for another 10-years once the initial lease period ends.
A prominent cannabis real estate firm was quoted promoting the development as “the most unique green zone property in the entire country” earlier last year, in an interview with reporters from Victorville’s Daily Press newspaper.
The mall consists of 24 different buildings, to be divided into the following 33 businesses: twenty farms/cultivators, six distributors, five manufacturers, and two dispensaries (some businesses would perform multiple roles, like farms with a processing facility). The application for the development also detailed future plans of an on-site consumption lounge as well as cannabis-themed events, although it is yet to be determined if approval will be granted for these ventures.
Should everything go according to plan, the city of Barstow is projected to earn a substantial amount of tax revenue, as well as other fees, from the businesses within the development. Each of the aforementioned 33 businesses will have to pay a $5 per square foot ‘annual impact fee’ (which will cost them millions of dollars), the two dispensaries agreed to pay 3 percent of their total annual revenue to the city, and Barstow officials have already collected over $420,000 in nonrefundable application fees from the super center (funny the number ended up being around 420k, right?).
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“Barstow belongs to Satan”
Overall, the public’s response to the project has been mostly negative, at least among those who showed up at the city council meeting. One local restaurant owner, Billie Braun, claims the development would “worsen Barstow’s image as a drug town.”
“Do we want this for our community on such a large scale? I’m not against marijuana but I’m concerned about the scale this particular project is on,” he mentioned during his statement.
As expected, the local Christian community spoke out against the cannabis conglomerate as well. Pastor Bushawn Carpenter who is heading a group that calls itself “Barstow Christian Pastors”, says he is “adamantly opposed” to the idea. Other local religious figures backed his sentiments, like Joe Vail who ministers at the Mojave Desert Christian Church. He stated that the thought of it all reminds of him when “Barstow was known as the meth capital of the world.”
“I would love to see a sign across Barstow Main Street up here that says Barstow belongs to Jesus,” Vail added. “I’m afraid if you put up something like this, you’ll be saying Barstow belongs to Satan. I’m not in favor of this at all.”
Additionally, many locals were in agreeance that the space could be put to better use, with “actual stores that the area could use”, as one resident Samantha Victoria commented. “I’d rather see things going in for kids to do like a skating rink and a water park like we had before,” another local added.
A rocky road to approval
After shooting down the proposal only a couple weeks prior, Barstow’s “unelected” city staffers decided to re-pitch the cannabis super center idea, giving the public much shorter-than-usual notice (less than 1 week) along with a nearly 2,000-page packet to review and prepare for the vote. Residents faced off against city officials, cannabis industry stakeholders, and wealthy out-of-town investors.
As far as cannabis acceptance goes, Barstow has been one of last cities to come on board. They had originally banned all pot shops within city limits but eventually retracted that stance and allowed for one delivery service to open in 2022.
Despite the amount of tourism and revenue this super center could bring to the city, any positives have been mostly shrouded in controversy, not only due to the already factious nature of the cannabis industry itself, but because of the shady political elements surrounding this whole deal. It was recently discovered that the project’s developer made independent campaign contributions to numerous different council members during the last election.
Barstow City Attorney Matthew Summers told the Victorville Daily Press that the donations “did not appear to be a conflict of interest for any of the sitting members”.
Again, most people are anticipating that this development will be approved during the next vote, but some are raising questions. Councilmember Barbara M. Rose implied that she may change her stance because she “misunderstood the motion” when she voted in favor. But keep in mind, whether this center gets approved or not, the city has already made hundreds of thousands of dollars off these businesses in ‘nonrefundable’ licensing fees alone.
Whether you’re in favor or not, this does set an interesting precedent for the city of Barstow. Going from an anti-cannabis town to home of the largest pot center in the country, is a big step. But is it a step in the right direction? Will this open the floodgates to a thriving marijuana industry in the high desert? Or will these businesses and their out-of-town investors and developers monopolize the local market? Only time will tell; all we can do now is keep an eye on what happens during the next city council meeting and work from there.
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