Fading Raymond becomes port for pot entrepreneurs
Seattle nightlife entrepreneur Marcus Charles went looking for a community willing to embrace legal pot businesses. The Port of Willapa Harbor in southwest Washington welcomed him and is becoming a magnet for aspiring pot growers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
RAYMOND, Pacific County —
After voters legalized marijuana in Washington, Seattle nightlife entrepreneur Marcus Charles went hunting for a depressed timber town.
Owner of the Crocodile Café and co-founder of the Capitol Hill Block Party, Charles wanted to jump into the emerging pot industry. His first impulse was to find a city with vacant industrial space and a hearty appetite for new jobs. That led him away from the booming communities around Puget Sound.
His first stop was Shelton in sleepy Mason County. But Shelton’s elected officials were divided about hosting pot merchants in the hamlet. So Charles moved on to the Port of Willapa Harbor in Raymond, a city of 2,900, about 25 miles south of Aberdeen.
Most young people leave Raymond — where Nirvana played its first gig at a house party — after high school and don’t come back, said Port Manager Rebecca Chaffee. “We were a logging and fishing town and those jobs have largely disappeared,” Chaffee said.
But Charles has become a pied piper of pot producers and Raymond a magnet for marijuana businesses, with pending applications for 31 state-growing licenses on Port land. And that’s made Raymond emblematic of job-hungry communities embracing legal pot merchants while more affluent areas such as King County’s Redmond Ridge turned them away.
When Charles first met Chaffee, he told her he’d like to turn the Port’s vacant sawmill, and 20 surrounding acres, into a pot-business campus.
Chaffee, who said she’s never seen a marijuana plant, was astounded. Although 54 percent of the electorate in both Raymond and Pacific County voted for legal weed, Chaffee said she never imagined the new law would “have anything to do with us.”
She took the idea to Port commissioners. They chuckled, she recalled, and said “really?”
The Port had just lost its biggest tenant, Halosource, a water-purification technology company that moved to Bothell, leaving five vacant warehouses to fill. A pot campus couldn’t be dismissed.
Next stop was the office of Mayor Bob Jungar. A retired high-school teacher, Jungar, 75, said he was expecting Charles, 39, to be “seedy.” But Charles, who has an MBA from the University of Washington, came across as anything but the stoner stereotype.
Jungar consulted other city leaders. “Like me, they thought we might as well take advantage of it,” Jungar said.
Officials called a public meeting to gauge opposition. Chaffee thought it should be held in an auditorium under the watch of a police officer. But only seven people showed up. Just one objected, she said.
City officials held another hearing. This time no one showed up.
The Port sold the 20 acres Charles was eyeing to developers who plan to carry out the plan for a pot campus, where Charles would be one of the tenants. The Port now has leases with 11 businesses at three different facilities, bringing in $16,000 a month.
The state’s recent lottery for retail pot stores even broke the Port’s way: the lottery determined that the only two retail locations in Pacific County will be on Port property.
Pot has provided Raymond a new sense of hope. “I was afraid for the Port and the future of the community,” Chaffee said, “and this changes that dynamic.”
Charles, though, has pivoted to another strategy.
He’s not seeking a state license to grow, process or sell marijuana. He thinks he’s got a better idea.
Richard Montoure is one of the growers who followed Charles’ lead to Raymond.
Montoure, 39, had owned a small contracting company in Shoreline for 13 years. He also liked to smoke a little weed. When the recession hit, his remodeling jobs all but stopped. He got into a side-business, building grow tents for medical-marijuana cultivators.
He heard through a friend about growing opportunities in Raymond, went down for a look, is now renting a 4,000-square-foot warehouse for $1,300 a month, and also moved to the town. “I pretty much packed up everything and came down here,” Montoure said.
Like others with Port leases, he’s applied for a state license to grow recreational marijuana under Initiative 502. In the meanwhile, he’s cultivating strains with names such as Girl Scout Cookies for medical-marijuana patients. “The idea is to have the medical (business first), paying taxes and essentially funding the 502 business without having to let go some of the company to investors,” he said.
The aspiring growers are at three Port facilities: the Dick Taylor Industrial Park, the Raymond Port Dock, and the South Fork Industrial Park, the 20-acre parcel sold to developers for $400,000.
These properties are not to be confused with the Port’s marina in nearby Tokeland, where no pot businesses are proposed on Port property. “We hear a lot of jokes about Tokeland,” Chaffee said.
Raymond officials hope the pot businesses employ a couple hundred people. “We’ve had people coming by every day looking for jobs,” Chaffee said, “including a lot of middle-aged women like me trying to get jobs as production workers, which I think is cool.”
Mayor Jungar said he isn’t worried Raymond will become known as a pot haven, a sort of Amsterdam on the Willapa River. “So many cities are getting involved that I don’t think we will be seen as a marijuana town,” he said.
Not long after impressing Raymond officials last year with his savvy, Charles veered away from his initial plan of becoming an industrial-scale pot grower.
As the state began drafting rules for the new pot industry, Charles worried the growing business would be dominated by a few big players.
The federal prohibition of pot also created serious questions for Washington’s wannabe growers and investors: Would the Obama administration allow the state’s experiment with legal pot to go forward? Would future administrations?
At the time, Charles couldn’t foresee that the U.S. Department of Justice would give its conditional approval to legalization, as it did in August; or that state officials would not initially cap the overall number of growing licenses, essentially creating a small decentralized industry.
Bottling vendor model
Instead of growing plants, Charles found what he considered a safer niche.
Familiar with liquor-industry regulations as a bar owner, he opted to become the pot equivalent of a bottling vendor.
He spent more than $100,000 on a sophisticated machine to extract concentrated THC — the key psychoactive chemical in pot — from plants.
Then, he and his partner, Rick Stevens, came up with a design for disposable cigarette-sized vaporizers they call JUJU Joints, which they’re having manufactured in China.
His idea? As a vendor, he plans to drive up to growing and processing facilities with his mobile-extracting machine. For a fee, he’ll let growers use his extractor to produce lucrative hash oil from their plants. Then he’ll offer to sell them empty electronic JUJU Joints or “sticks,” that they’d fill with their oil. They could then sell the disposable e-joints to recreational-pot retailers.
“We sell them the empty sticks. That’s where our profit center is,” he said. “They mark them up and take them to market.”
His model appears legal, said a spokesman for the agency implementing the state’s legal pot law. “His equipment, of course, would need to meet the specifications in our rules,” said the Liquor Control Board’s Brian Smith.
JUJU Joints are available at 30 medical-marijuana dispensaries in Seattle and five in Everett, he said. Because it’s technically illegal to sell medical marijuana, the “suggested donation” for each joint is $24.
It’s a business model Charles thinks could be replicated in other states.
He remains the president and spokesman for a new Raymond-based trade group, the Washington Recreational Agricultural Industrial Association.
And members of the group are already making $2 million in building improvements to Port warehouses.
“I think it’s going to rejuvenate the town with new people and new ideas,” Chaffee said.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @potreporter