Even with some ambitious redevelopment efforts over the years, large sections of southwest Michigan remained in decline, dotted with empty warehouses and storefronts.
Clark Equipment once offered thousands of jobs in Buchanan. So did National Standard, Tyler Refrigeration, Simplicity Pattern and other companies in and around Niles.
But as those businesses started moving, closing or scaling back, the cities were left with abandoned and decaying buildings.
And eventually stores in once-busy downtowns started closing too — thanks to evolving shopping preferences and the loss of residents who had to drive or move elsewhere for jobs.
Then the state moved to legalize marijuana.
Cannabis-industry investors were on the prowl for suitable locations for dispensaries, as well as grow and processing plants. They were greeted by officials in southwest Michigan who were willing to listen — and were highly motivated to entertain the business proposals.
City leaders say the cannabis industry has packed more than a decade’s worth of redevelopment into the span of a few years, and they’re looking at the prospect of even more projects in the coming year.
The total investment in buildings and equipment in Niles and Buchanan already exceeds $50 million in the past two years, and the cities say they’ve gained about 250 new jobs each.
Taxes collected by the state from the new marijuana businesses have resulted in tens of thousands of dollars for the individual communities, which also collect annual fees for the licenses.
So far, there are nine provisioning centers in Niles, Buchanan and Edwardsburg, with more on the way, including boutique shops called micro-businesses.
And at last count, there were more 10 growing operations in Niles, Buchanan, Benton Harbor, Eau Claire and Galien Township — with, again, more coming.
“We don’t have a lake, a destination winery or some other attraction,” said Sanya Vitale, director of community investment for Niles. “But we have this, and we’re doing it very well.”
Why southwest Michigan?
Besides the willingness of local officials to consider marijuana businesses, investors have been drawn to the area because of the availability of empty buildings — largely with the proper commercial and industrial zoning — that can be converted into dispensaries or facilities to grow, process and pack cannabis.
In Niles, cannabis growers and processors are moving into the old Simplicity plant on Wayne Street and additional buildings closer to Jerry Tyler Memorial Airport. In Buchanan, Redbud Roots already has filled a few buildings in the Post Road industrial corridor.
And while some have been looking for old industrial buildings, others have been drawn to the abandoned storefronts in Niles and Buchanan to convert them into medical and adult-use dispensaries, offering convenience for customers from Indiana and other locations.
Michigan 51, or South 11th Street, has become a go-to location for dispensaries in Niles, with Green Stem already open, Primitiv preparing to open just down the road and Regional Roots hoping to open a micro-business later this year.
ReLeaf Center for Compassionate Care, which has concentrated most of its Niles operations at an industrial park on the north side of the city, has settled on a location for a designated consumption area on the South 11th Street corridor.
Meanwhile in Buchanan, dispensaries have largely located in the downtown area along Front Street, revitalizing several buildings in the city’s core and creating hope among city leaders that more restaurants and amenities will follow.
“We have a big opportunity in front of us to benefit from this new market of people who are coming to Buchanan every day,” said Murphy. “We need to entice them to stay, shop, eat and patronize our local businesses.”
Though Edwardsburg, Three Oaks and other communities initially opted out of the marijuana business, some have subsequently changed course because of the threat or the reality of a citizens-driven ballot initiative requiring that they consider such ventures.
After Edwardsburg decided to allow two marijuana retail locations, Dr. A’s Re-Leaf Center opened last year in a dispensary in the former Lunker’s complex, at U.S. 12 and Michigan 62, in the center of the village. NoBo opened a short time later in a vacant building on Michigan 62, only two miles from the Indiana border.
“We were attracted by the traffic and the proximity to Indiana,” Stewart Ireland, an official with Alvarez Cultivation, said prior to the opening of Dr A’s in Edwardsburg.
Those sentiments are echoed by other dispensary owners, who say they’re bringing in customers from states — such as Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky — where cannabis is illegal or restricted to medical use.
But it will likely be traffic along U.S. 12 and easy access for Lake Michigan visitors that will entice dispensaries and grow facilities to eventually open in Three Oaks.
Although the village is already a destination because of Journeyman Distillery and its theaters, shops and restaurants, it will entertain proposals for marijuana-related businesses this summer. Three Oaks Township is still working out details of what it might or might not allow.
A retailer or micro-business might be able to find existing space to locate in the village, but a grow and processing facility will likely end up on a vacant 60-acre parcel on the west side of town. Except for its location straddling U.S. 12, open land is about all the surrounding township can offer, as it is predominantly rural.
“We only recently got our first restaurant at Deer Creek Hunt Club,” said Three Oaks Township Supervisor George Mangold. “And now they’re going for a liquor license, which would be our first.”
While the abundance of empty buildings have drawn many marijuana businesses to the region, Fellō Cannabis was attracted to nearby Galien Township because of the willingness of local officials to work with the business, said Matt Sulkowski, president and CEO of the company.
“I was looking for a place that was receptive to jobs and industry as well as proximity to friends and family in Chicago,” said Sulkowski, who eventually relocated to the area in order to be closer to the new business.
Fellō built a new 40,000-square-foot building to grow cannabis, distributing to 65 stores across the state. And it has plans to expand its footprint in Galien Township and open five or so dispensaries in the state.
What’s been gained
Unlike factories or other businesses looking for new locations, none of the marijuana-related operators have received tax breaks or other incentives to locate in southwest Michigan.
“It’s an important part of our economy that provides hundreds of good jobs and millions of dollars of investment that builds our tax base and reduces the tax burden on our residents,” said Rich Murphy, community development director in Buchanan.
As the overall valuation goes up, less is needed from residential property owners to support government, schools and various services, said Murphy, pointing out that annual fees and sales tax collections from the marijuana industry also will provide income.
Because demand for housing has been surging here and across most of the country, it’s impossible to say that the cannabis industry is solely responsible for the hot market for real estate in the Niles-Buchanan area, said Lisa Wright, a Realtor with Re/Max Modern Realty in Niles.
But Wright believes the industry has still provided a boost for the area by fueling demand for commercial and industrial properties, as well as rentals.
And while downtown Buchanan has filled several storefronts because of the cannabis industry, Niles might not have gained new businesses such as Culver’s, Biggby Coffee and other businesses without the additional traffic that the dispensaries are generating, she said.
“Initially, there was skepticism and concerns,” Wright said. “But so far, it seems like it’s been good for the region.”
Business owners in downtown Buchanan say they’ve benefited from the increased foot traffic that local dispensaries have generated.
Alan Robandt moved to Buchanan from Chicago in 2006 because he was looking for a more affordable place to locate his business. He settled on a building, at 114 E. Front St., that needed plenty of work but gave him a space to live while growing his antique, vintage and modern furnishings business.
While customers from Chicago were still able to find the business, the spot in Buchanan enabled him to expand his reach into northern Indiana, Robandt said. Several other businesses, such as Thomas Jolly Antiques and Dean Antiques, were drawn to the affordability of the buildings.
“About 70% of my business is online, so it didn’t really matter where I was located,” said Jolly.
Robandt said there were 24 empty storefronts when he arrived in Buchanan. Now there are fewer than 10.
“It amazes me how many people walk in from Union Pier or Lakeside that never heard about us,” he said.
New customers also have come from Indianapolis and Louisville, drawn to Buchanan initially by the city’s adult-use dispensaries, said Robandt, who was among those who pushed city officials to allow the dispensaries to locate downtown.
Because he saw the impact that dispensaries had in Ann Arbor, Rick Paniagua, the owner of Cannavista Wellness at 120 E. Front St., also was a big proponent of the stores being able to locate in the city’s core.
“It made no sense to attract customers to the industrial park,” Paniagua said.
Paniagua has taken up residence in the city, which he hopes to see flourish with more restaurants, shops and other amenities to keep people in town.
Just a few store fronts away from Cannavista, Chris Fliris is among those who already have moved into town, renting a store, at 110 E. Front St., for his new business, Squish Michigan. It sells and rents presses, bubble bags and other equipment aimed at the do-it-yourself cannabis market.
“I’d like to be able to also offer classes down the road,” Fliris said.
Will the cannabis boom continue?
Officials believe the jobs and investments will continue to rise in coming years as the cannabis market develops further in Niles, Buchanan and surrounding areas.
In March, the Michigan Department of the Treasury announced it was distributing $10 million to more than 100 municipalities and counties as part of the taxes collected on recreational marijuana sold in the state, while $23.2 million was divided evenly between K-12 education and the state’s transportation fund.
As part of the initial distribution, $140,006 went to Berrien County, $84,003 to Buchanan and $56,002 to Niles. That revenue will likely continue to rise, as 2020 was hindered by the pandemic and new dispensaries continue to open.
Vitale said Niles aims to help the young and growing industry prosper in the city.
“We’re filling jobs in a field where there were none only a couple of years ago,” she said.
Many of the buildings that have been taken over by cannabis growers and retailers might otherwise have become candidates to be torn down.
Just a few years ago, for example, there was concern about the future of the 750,000-square-foot Simplicity plant. Today, the plant is being restored for use by cannabis growers and processors, while dilapidated factories nearby — including the empty National Standard Building that recently burned — remind passersby of what might have been without the new industry.
“I used to make calls every day to prospective businesses,” Vitale said. “Now I’m the one receiving the calls.”
These are the cannabis businesses that have opened so far or will be opening soon in southwest Michigan:
- Alvarez Cultivation, 26324 U.S. 12
- NoBo Michigan, 69411 Michigan 62
- Fellō Cannabis, 460 W. Southeastern St.
- Exclusive Healing, 17817 Nye Road
- Michigan Total Healing Center of Buchanan
- NoBo Michigan, 900 Alreco Road
- Pinnacle Emporium, 221 E. Front St.
- Zen Leaf, 259 E. Front St.
- Cannavista, 120 E. Front St.
- 7 Engines, 1101 E. Front St.
- High Profile, 804 E. Front St.
- Red Bud Roots, Post Road industrial corridor
- Green Stem, 1140 S. 11th St.
- Releaf Center, 1840 Terminal Road
- Better Daze, 1760 Renaissance Drive
- TriMed Sustainable Solution, 1840 Terminal Road
- NMR, 2112 Industrial Dr.
- HDS Investments, 1312 Lake St.
- HLF, 901 Wayne St. (former Simplicity building)
- Baked Releaf, 1840 Terminal Road
- Rosenberg Holdings, 901 Wayne St. (former Simplicity building)