Along Michigan-Ohio border, small-town Morenci is transformed by marijuana

Supply and provisions

SLIDESHOW: Morenci, a tiny town on the Ohio border, has a bustling cannabis business zone dubbed “cannabis cove” or “the green zone” by locals. Cars fill the parking lot of Michigan Supply & Provisions, the first dispensary in town to open adult-use marijuana sales. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Saxby and Mina

SLIDESHOW: General manager Krista Saxby and regional manager Melvyn Mina sit on picnic tables outside Stateline Remedii the day before the opening recreational marijuana sales. The tables came with the building, which used to be a soft-serve ice cream shop. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

marijuana shop

SLIDESHOW: Three of Morenci’s four medical marijuana dispensaries are also licensed to sell recreational marijuana — more than bigger cities like Grand Rapids and Lansing, which still haven’t approved any facilities. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Ohio border

SLIDESHOW: The four marijuana dispensaries in Morenci benefit from a prime location steps from the Ohio border. Ohio police have warned residents they face a steep fine if they’re caught bringing cannabis back across the border. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Silver and Sessions

SLIDESHOW: City superintendent Michael Sessions, left, and mayor Sean Seger say local marijuana businesses have brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the cash-strapped city budget. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

SLIDESHOW: Julie Kruse is a bartender at Flats Pub in downtown Morenci. She said some staunch opposition to the presence of pot remains, “but for the most part, (the community) supports it.” (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Pinnacle

SLIDESHOW: An employee of Pinnacle Emporium in Morenci adjusts cannabis products. One of the owners, Mike Silver, said he and a partner have bought up properties for marijuana shops all along Michigan’s border with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Carl Murphy

SLIDESHOW: Carl Murphy sits in his barbershop in downtown Morenci while his niece plays. He said he hopes the cannabis businesses will bring economic stimulus to the traditional business district. “When I first get here in the morning, this place is a ghost town.” (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Mike Silver

SLIDESHOW: Mike Silver, co-owner of Pinnacle Emporium, said he plans to buy property in town to help transition the 30 to 50 employees he’ll hire once the company’s grow facility is running. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Steve Hartman

SLIDESHOW: Steve Hartman stands with his dog Ariel on the front porch of his home, which stands in the center of Morenci’s marijuana district. The traffic and smell wears on him; he says he would not have bought the home had he known what was coming. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

A low-slung building on the outskirts of downtown Morenci still retains the markers of its former life as a soft-serve ice cream shop. Walk-up windows, blue picnic tables for crowds of kids, even a menu tucked away in a back room: two Coney dogs, tater tots and a drink for $6.

But children are no longer allowed inside the building and the ice cream machines have given way to gleaming glass cases. Now it’s an adult-use marijuana dispensary located in the center of small-town Morenci’s cannabis business area, and business is booming.

“We’re making our due diligence to make sure this is going to happen for the community,” said Melvyn Mina, regional manager for Stateline Remedii, as employees packaged marijuana flower in preparation for adult-use sales they’d launch the next day. “We’re very excited. This is a historic moment.”

Packed with four dispensaries and abutted by 65 acres of land for grow operations, locals have given the area a number of nicknames — “cannabis cove,” and “the green zone,” among them — and its upended life in this town of just over 2,000 people along the Ohio border. 

After heated local debate, Morenci agreed to allow medical marijuana facilities in 2017 and recreational marijuana shortly after it was legalized in 2018. Just over a year later, it is one of only a handful of towns in Michigan with adult-use marijuana shops, well ahead of larger cities like Grand Rapids and Lansing, which have yet to approve any licenses. Nearly 1,500 other cities and towns across the state, most small municipalities like Morenci, have preemptively banned the industry as they sit back and see how it affects other communities.

So far, the relationship between Morenci and its pot industry seems symbiotic.

City officials say the money it’s brought in has been a game-changer for a town that long struggled economically, all without spiking crime or overtaxing the town’s tiny police force.

Longtime local residents are learning to live alongside their new business neighbors, whose owners live near Michigan’s major cities or out of state. The stores pull in unprecedented levels of traffic and the air is periodically thick with the stench of marijuana anywhere near the business district, which irks nearby homeowners. But their proprietors are friendly and the city budget is swelling, so most residents are nonplussed.

Marijuana business owners are at a distinct advantage: They’re among the first in Michigan to sell a long-sought-after product and they’re right on the border with a state with few real competitors due to a ban on recreational use in Ohio, though that may soon change

Pinnacle

An employee of Pinnacle Emporium in Morenci adjusts cannabis products. One of the owners, Mike Silver, said he and a partner have bought up properties for marijuana shops all along Michigan’s border with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Once an area dominated by agriculture, Morenci is used to being a frontier town. Now it finds itself on a new frontier, and residents are embracing it.

“You need to do what you feel is right for your community,” said Morenci mayor Sean Seger, who was once reluctant to allow marijuana in town. “If the revenue is what’s right for your community, don’t be afraid to go that route.”

A wonderful day in the neighborhood

On an early January day, white fog fills the intersection of Morenci’s marijuana district, lit up by green neon lights tracing the gables of an old bank turned medical dispensary. A freshly-paved street cuts through the middle of it, which the city built for business owners to access an industrial park packed with soon-to-be grow operations.

The smell of cannabis hangs heavy over the street, but it’s no picture of lethargy. Cars zip in and out of the parking lots, crowded even on a Friday afternoon. The license plates show customers from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, whose state line is steps away.

Inside Stateline Remedii, employees help customers peruse marijuana buds, called flower, over a shining glass case, “deli-style.” Across the street at Michigan Supply & Provisions, workers take orders on iPads as customers browse the sunny, wood-lined space. At Pinnacle Emporium, a “mini-museum” of 1960s and ’70s-era rock ‘n’ roll ephemera hangs on the walls and small orbs hold buds, magnified, for inspection.

“I couldn’t imagine a business doing as well as this particular business was doing in such a rural area,” said Mike Silver, co-owner of Pinnacle Emporium. “But sure enough, it seems to do quite well. We’re pulling people from 30 miles north, 30 miles east, 30 miles west and also about 200 miles south.”

Adult-use marijuana is still illegal in Ohio, and although it allows medical use, patients are allotted only a 90-day supply. Sgt. Matthew Greer of the Ohio State Highway Patrol said troopers regularly catch people bringing marijuana back into Ohio, though there hasn’t yet been a noticeable uptick in citations with the legalization of recreational use in Michigan.

“The problem is, people are using their 90-day supply within a few weeks, whether they’re using it or selling it or whatever, and then they run out so they go to Michigan,” Greer said.

Some dispensaries warn customers of the consequences of taking it across state lines — those caught in Ohio are charged with a minor misdemeanor and a fee over $200 — but most take the tack that they can’t control how or where customers will use their product. 

Mike Silver

Mike Silver, co-owner of Pinnacle Emporium, said he plans to buy property in town to help transition the 30 to 50 employees he’ll hire once the company’s grow facility is running. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Others have made the out-of-state market a part of their strategy: Silver of Pinnacle Emporium said he and his partner Erik Watkins have bought up properties for marijuana shops all along Michigan’s border with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

And city officials are happy to be their haven. “We don’t care” if Ohioans take recreational marijuana across the border, said Michael Sessions, Morenci city superintendent. Ohio state troopers are warning motorists about the rules, and “it doesn’t surprise me that they’re real ambitious” about enforcing them, Sessions said ruefully.  

“It’s not even sane what we’ve done for the past 40 years with marijuana, giving people criminal records off of a joint. Come on.”

The little town that marijuana built

Less than a mile away, downtown Morenci’s main drag is sleepy.

The community is fairly insular, “it really doesn’t let its presence known too much,” said Carl Murphy, who owns a barbershop in the heart of town. Though he’s now well-established, he said it took three years for his business to start showing a profit. “It takes time for people around here to get to know you.”

Marijuana retail was not an obvious choice for Morenci.

“This is a conservative, Christian farm-folk community,” Murphy said. “Conservative, Christian farm folk kind of frown on that hippieism.” 

But a few years ago, the city was struggling. More than half the population was either in poverty or struggled to afford basic household necessities, well above the state average of 40 percent. Around 35 percent of residents didn’t have a high school diploma, compared with a statewide average of 13 percent. Surrounded by farmland, area residents worked in agriculture, manufacturing or social services.

“We were having a lot of issues in the community,” said Sessions, the city superintendent. The city and school districts were struggling to make ends meet. The city also owned about 65 acres of land that stood unused — and was going untaxed.

City superintendent Michael Sessions, left, and mayor Sean Seger say local marijuana businesses have brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the cash-strapped city budget. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

It became clear that many of the town’s younger residents had a knack for growing medical marijuana.

“It seemed like every street that you’d go down somebody was growing marijuana in their backyard,” Sessions said.

Older, lifelong residents were complaining about the smell emanating from younger neighbors’ yards, and the battle lines were drawn.

When the law passed in 2016 to allow medical marijuana facilities, the younger home-growers were eager to see the town embrace the opportunity. After months of heated public debate, a majority of residents agreed to get on board and the city council approved it in 2017.

“I started not being a supporter of medical marijuana,” said Seger, the mayor.  “But I did a lot more research, saw what was capable with medical marijuana and saw the potential numbers that financially we could get with marijuana. And my position changed.”

The city sold that unused land to companies planning grow facilities and dispensaries for nearly $400,000 and have made $245,000 in licensing fees since 2017. That number will only grow as they begin pulling in property tax revenue for a number of facilities that are still under construction, Sessions and Seger said.

They say they haven’t yet received any portion of the sales tax imposed by the state on medical marijuana, which is supposed to be allocated mostly to the state School Aid Fund with a smaller portion going back to municipalities. When adult-use sales pick up, a portion of the 10 percent excise tax and 6 percent sales tax should also be returned to cities that allow facilities within their borders.

Some of the town’s problems remain — the poverty rate is still well above the statewide average — but the industry has already been a boon for the once-cash-strapped community. Marijuana money has paved four new roads, financed wheelchair ramps for the sidewalks and paid the salary of a new full-time police officer, Sessions said. Crime rates have remained steady and police say they don’t feel the availability of marijuana has changed local public safety.

“The schools are happy, everybody’s happy with the way things are going,” said Murphy, the barber. “It’s only going to get better. The projections are through the roof as far as the revenue that's coming from them places. What we can do as a community with those extra revenues is quite remarkable.”

The four marijuana dispensaries in Morenci benefit from a prime location steps from the Ohio border. Ohio police have warned residents they face a steep fine if they’re caught bringing cannabis back across the border. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

A hearty welcome

Most Morenci residents who spoke with Bridge agreed that cannabis has been a welcome addition to their town. Those who once dissented still harbor their frustrations, said Julie Kruse, who bartends at Flats Pub downtown.

“You have a few people who are old-school, say ‘we don’t need that stuff,’” Kruse said. “But for the most part, [the community] supports it.”

It’s already a part of their daily lives: Kruse said the draw of the cannabis businesses has brought more people into the bar and restaurant, and Murphy said he frequently has visitors stop in his shop just to ask where the nearest dispensary is.

Some, however, are a little more affected by the influx of cannabis businesses than others. Steve Hartman bought his residence in the soon-to-be marijuana business zone three years ago.

What began as a quiet home within walking distance of a laundromat, bank and ice cream shop quickly turned to a high-traffic intersection and, lately, brought about periodic bouts of open-air cannabis stench. That can be hard to bear for him and his family, which includes a son who is still in high school.

He said he “absolutely” would not have bought the home had he known what was coming. 

“We never intended to be here permanently, and this doesn’t help that. We love it here, but it’s too busy,” Hartman said. Still, while he doesn’t smoke himself, he remains neutral on cannabis: “I’m on the fence. There’s pros and cons.”

For those a little further afield, the only complaint is that the bounty of their highly-profitable neighbors hasn’t yet seeped into downtown Morenci.

“I’d like to see more activity here in town, more incentives for businesses to come in,” Murphy said. “When I first get here in the morning, this place is a ghost town. It doesn’t wake up until after lunch time. I’m going to stay optimistic and hope that this community can see a little boom of sorts soon.”

Cannabis business owners acknowledge there’s more to do.

Silver of Pinnacle Emporium, who lives in Las Vegas and commutes to Morenci and his other shops along the Michigan border, said he’s planning to buy property in town to help transition the 30 to 50 people he’ll hire once his company’s grow facility is up and running.

“Our vision is to create more places for people to come to stick around,” Silver said. “Versus drive in from 100 miles away, get their product and turn around. Keep them here, let’s give them a reason to stay.”

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Comments

George Hebben
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 10:07am

From a non-user:
Stench? Seems unnecessarily judgmental for a Bridge article. How about odor? smell?
One person's stench is another person's aroma. Or, as they say in the towns where paper mills create a REAL stench, "To me, it's the sweet smell of prosperity."

Rick
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 3:48pm

The smell from paper plants is from the waste water they dump in nearby rivers..
You know, someone else's drinking water.

Disgruntled taxpayer
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 10:17am

I'd like to have more detail on the municipal finances here. At $5,000 per business per year, $245,000 seems like an astronomical amount for a small community to bring in in licensing fees. It's also a pass-through for the municipality. You have to justify that the money has been spent related to the licensing, so in theory it's budget-neutral unless the community was previously paying its employees to sit around and do nothing. The nearly $400,000 land sale is a great score for a community like Morenci. It obviously hadn't been sold to anyone else, so I agree that you can call that a direct result of the mj industry. But that type of land sale revenue will not be typical for most municipalities. There is no excise tax on rec mj in Michigan and, to my knowledge, none of the sales tax goes directly to the local units, so it stands to reason that the city hasn't seen any income there. Could the author please break down the $245,000 in licensing revenue? Is that primarily from med mj, not rec mj? How many licenses of each type are active in Morenci? What is the income per fiscal year? Does that figure already include 2020 fees? Thank you!

Anonymous
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 3:58pm

There is a 10% excise tax on rec sales along with a 6% sales tax. A portion of that tax is dived among the cities with rec stores.

Disgruntled taxpayer
Wed, 01/22/2020 - 9:46am

Yes, thank you, that's true. But it doesn't address the questions re: $245,000 in licensing revenue. Assuming a maximum allowable fee of $5,000 per license per year, this means that Morenci has collected licensing fees on 49 licenses. The stated time period is 2017 forward, and we know that the recreational (adult-use) marijuana licenses would not have generated fees until at least 2019. Even if we assume that virtually all of Morenci's marijuana licenses (medical and recreational) have been active since 2017 and that the 2020 fees have already been collected, thus giving us a fee period of four years (annual fees collected four times), this means that Morenci would have to have at least 13 different marijuana licenses. Most likely considerably more because not all began generating fees as early as 2017. Are there really 13+ licenses in the city?

Furthermore, collecting $245,000 over a period of less than four years (sometime in 2017 to January 2020) is enough to fund at least 0.5 FTE including benefits. Again, likely more depending on wages and benefits. Does Morenci have a staffer working at least half-time year round on administering and enforcing the licenses? If not, it cannot justify collecting $245,000 in licensing fees. I don't know what the city council members are paid, but the cost allocated to discussing and voting on the city's marijuana regulations over time should be marginal.

What I'd really like to see is for Bridge to fully explain the $245,000 in licensing fees by category (medical/recreational), license type, and fiscal year. Frankly, without further evidence I have great difficulty in accepting this number that Bridge has put out there as being factually correct.

Ann
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 10:58am

For some reason I'm skeptical that the guy from Las Vegas really cares about the long-term stability of the towns along the Ohio border. I predict that the moment Ohio gets recreational pot is the moment he moves on to his next project. Somehow the fact that he doesn't know that there is no border between Michigan and Illinois makes me doubt his long-term investment in the state.

David Green
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 11:10am

That's a good overview of the situation, Riley, but why must outside news sources always refer to the community as sleepy? There's really not that much fatigue here. It's just a small town.

Michele
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 1:55pm

ewwwwww the guy hadling marijuana without gloves on!

Rick
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 3:52pm

The elephant in the room here is what happened in Canada. You know, that country next door that we don't even realize is there and have nothing to learn from.
Canada legalized cannabis. So what happened in the year or more since then?
The prices in the legal shops was so out of line (bordering on ridiculous - just like in the US now) that a HUGE black market popped up and now that is where everyone who isn't rich goes.
So guess what is going to happen? Yup: the EXACT SAME THING. Just watch.

Corey B.
Mon, 01/20/2020 - 11:29pm

Are edibles available?
I don't inhale -

Gigi
Tue, 01/21/2020 - 3:50am

The author of this article didn’t check and recheck his facts.
The town as a whole does not accept “Cannabis Corners” the people who own and operate the shops, don’t live here, they don’t care about the community. You didn’t mention the number of strangers that stroll through town and neighborhoods, you did not talk to the real people of Morenci. Those conservative Christians were out working, they were milking cows, tending to calves, rain or shine the work goes on. What about the teachers and school counselors who are daily dealing with the children from homes where the purchase of MJ is more important than food, or a winter jacket? Did you talk with the retired teachers, coaches and business owners? Did you speak with any of the Pastors in town? Did you speak to the lunch ladies and the custodians at the school? Did you talk to the families who have lost or are losing their children to meth and heroin? They will tell you it started with MJ In high school and just got worse! We don’t know the long term effects of MJ this is not your Daddies pot, this is stronger and more addictive. Look at Colorado, it’s a mess, and now this mess is coming to Morenci. This is a very disappointing and one sided, inaccurate story!

Jerome Bussell
Tue, 01/21/2020 - 11:32am

I have spoken to school officials, I have spoken to the principal of Morenci school, I know a lunch lady or two, I ask a retired teacher her opinion constantly. My preacher is cool with marijuana. Buisness owners understand that with cannabis jobs local buisness will do better.
The housing market is the highest it has ever been. I've personally witnessed cannabis salve push cancer out of a Morenci residents skin.
Marujuana gets people off of meth and heroin.
Its more likely that a child would go without for a tobacco product rather than marijuana. Tobacco is actually addictive.
Crime has not increased either.

In my personal opinion facilities need to ensure there is no smell. I myself do visit the area to try and find smell frequently.
I personally have not witnessed a violation yet.
I also do not argue with a resident who claimes to be annoyed by marijuana smells in the area and will work to ensure the issue is rectified.

An opinion survey of Marijuana facilities within Morenci was sent to every resident of Morenci.
The majority of the conservative christian residents approved of marijuana facilities and then the majority also voted for recreational marijuana in November 2018.

Morenci marijuana facilities are helping mankind medically, mentally and monetarily.

The people of Morenci MI should be proud of what they are doing for their community, their county, the state of Michigan & humanity.

pierredeboe
Sun, 03/08/2020 - 9:20am

Accepting weed is not conservative and anyone can label themselves "Christian". Make way for the forward thinking municipalities that embrace the future. They will grow. Maybe the "conservative Christian" farmers farmers will convert their crops to cannabis and not be biting their nails as what corn or wheat futures will bring in to operate their farms. In W. MI towns like Hesperia and White Cloud have flown the "conservative Christian" banner since day one. These towns have withered to populations of welfare and other gov't supported programs for the citizens. Poverty sucks, just take a drive to one of these gov't funded black holes.
Cannabis is a high profit crop, corn and wheat prices fluctuate to a point that gov't subsidies sometimes keep farmers in "business". Gov't will never have to subsidize cannabis operations. Win Win