Small Skamania County city seeks to own its own pot store
Many Washington cities want to ban legal pot stores. But little North Bonneville not only wants a pot store, it wants to own its own pot store. City leaders think that would give them more control and revenue.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Many cities in Washington state are trying to ban or block new state-regulated pot stores.
North Bonneville, population 1,005, is not one of them.
A city some see as a Chevron station just west of the Columbia River’s Bridge of the Gods, North Bonneville not only wants a pot store — it wants to own a pot store.
Mayor Don Stevens figures that would give the Skamania County city more control of a store they’re likely to get anyway — and more revenue.
“We have a longstanding relationship with law enforcement. We have a vested interest in maintaining the health and welfare of our community. And someone else who might be granted a license might not have the same concerns,” Stevens said.
On the question of North Bonneville becoming the first Washington city to own a pot business, only three residents stood up and disagreed with the mayor at a public hearing Tuesday.
And they were pretty tame. John Mobley mostly had questions. Susie Strom, a drug- and alcohol-prevention coordinator, implored the City Council to slow down and think more about children.
Jim Goldring agreed, asking, “How can the city operate a store without an adverse impact on youth?”
Five residents supported the city becoming a pot dealer, some reluctantly.
“I don’t want somebody coming into the community where I walk my 6-year-old and making money off getting people high,” said Rachele Rice. But “if it’s coming here ... I want to see that money benefit the community.”
The council voted 3-to-1 to take the pioneering step and apply for one of the state’s 334 retail stores. Councilmember Charles Pace stressed that in no way was he encouraging customers to illegally take pot across the river to Oregon, or making a statement on national drug policy.
“We’re doing this for North Bonneville,” Pace said.
The dissenting vote came from Michael Hamilton, who said he voted to legalize weed last year but objects to the city getting into private business.
It’s not clear that’s going to be legal.
The new law allowing adults to possess small amounts of pot doesn’t mention cities as potential license holders.
Stevens sees that as a sign North Bonneville can proceed.
A spokesman for the state agency implementing the law isn’t so sure. Under the law, cities are the local authorities that determine what kind of businesses go where within their boundaries, and what local rules they must meet.
A city-owned pot store could create a conflict of interest, said Brian Smith of the Liquor Control Board.
In theory, such a city could make regulations onerous to a competing store in order to protect its own financial stake, Smith said.
“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer one way or another,” Smith said. “The board will have to take that up if and when a city does apply.”
North Bonneville officials argue that cities should be viewed more favorably than private pot merchants. Cities would be inclined to “to do the right thing instead of potentially cutting corners in the strict interest of the bottom line,” Stevens said.
North Bonneville isn’t that different from many Washington cities. Its residents approved legal pot, through Initiative 502 last year, with 54 percent of the vote, just a smidgen behind the statewide margin.
It’s a timber town turned retirement-and-bedroom community, Stevens said. The city grew up around the nearby Bonneville Dam and most of its residents leave for work, many at the dam. They also commute to Portland and Vancouver, about an hour away.
Within the city, Bonneville Hot Springs Resort is the biggest employer, said Stevens, who markets fruit-snack bars in his day job at Gorge Delights in the city.
The city has a golf course, a disc-golf course, and three places where you can get a bite and a drink. But it has no schools, a factor in pursuing a pot store.
To the east is Hood River, Ore., a haven for skiers, windsurfers and potential customers for a North Bonneville pot store, another factor.
When state officials issued rules for the new legal pot system, they allocated stores based on population. Skamania County got just two stores. (King County got the most, 61.)
Some 97 percent of the county’s land is owned by the state and federal governments. And, state law requires that no pot businesses be within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and other venues frequented by youth.
That left few viable places in Skamania County for pot stores.
North Bonneville officials looked to Stevenson, their more cosmopolitan neighbor, where North Bonneville kids go to school. Given the 1,000-foot buffer, and Stevenson’s zoning, they didn’t see opportunities for pot merchants there.
They figured that made school-less North Bonneville a target — or an opportunity.
Mayor Stevens views the prohibition of marijuana as impractical. “By bringing it out of the shadows and making it legal, and making sure everyone is properly identified and checked out and adhering to those rules, you end up with a safer, more functional system than we currently have,” he said.
Stevens even goes so far as to suggest North Bonneville could become a little Amsterdam-on-the-Columbia, although he stresses it would be illegal for people to take pot across the river to Oregon.
“People could come here and partake and stick around. It could lead to tourism. We have an RV park in town. Stevenson is just 6 miles down the road,” Stevens said, pointing to other attractions, such as hiking, biking and fishing.
It gives a whole new meaning to Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia.”
City officials have a site in mind, an industrial building just off Highway 14. They don’t expect a windfall. A consultant estimated they might make $65,000 a year, once they paid the debt of creating the business.
Still, North Bonneville “is no different than any other small city,” said the mayor. “We’re counting every penny. We certainly could put some of that money in law enforcement,” Stevens said.
The idea for the store is complicated. The cost of developing a site and leasing it might reach $145,000, according to city officials.
The city may lay out a little to get the project started, but hopes a planned public development authority (PDA) will get most of the funding from Internet crowdfunding, other investors, or possibly a city loan, which Stevens called a “last resort.”
A consultant said a store could expect positive cash flow in three to four months and to pay off its debt a year later.
North Bonneville plans to create a separate arm of city government to run the store, using the PDA model that runs Seattle’s Pike Place Market independently of the city, with its own governing board. Importantly, a PDA would give the city legal immunity from any liabilities incurred by a pot business, according to North Bonneville officials.
Stevens said the site the city is eyeing could accommodate a second pot store, and the city could lease space to the second store under state rules as long as it had its own entrance and exit and an impenetrable wall divided the two businesses. North Bonneville would get sales and business-and-occupation taxes from a second store, he said.
But first the city has to hurry to meet a 30-day application window that opens Monday. Then the Liquor Control Board needs to approve its application. And then the city must create the public development authority and raise funds, all in hopes of opening a store by next fall.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck proposition,” said City Attorney Ken Woodrich of the effort required.
As of Tuesday night, seven residents had volunteered for the five-member PDA board of directors.
Still, North Bonneville could get shut out. If more than two qualified applicants seek a store in Skamania County, the state plans to use a lottery to pick the winners.
“Anyone not nervous isn’t paying attention,” Stevens said of the city’s historic endeavor.
Nearby White Salmon, in Klickitat County, considered following North Bonneville’s footsteps. But it’s pretty certain they’re not going to move forward, said Woodrich, also the city attorney for White Salmon.
“I’ve never smoked marijuana, but I do know it’s coming, I know this is a city with all types of financial issues. It may be one of the craziest ideas we’ve ever come up with,” said resident Cheryl Jarmenn. “So be it.”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @potreporter