Chelsea Entrepreneurs Challenging Zoning Ideas Around Marijuana

Two Chelsea residents looking to break into the recreational cannabis industry in Chelsea are challenging the ideas behind the zoning regulations set by the City – regulations that bar such establishments from the Broadway business corridor and relegate them to expensive industrial locations in the city.

Chelsea has been known to be quite progressive when it comes to permitting and welcoming the marijuana industry, but the zoning regulations set more than a year ago required that any marijuana businesses be located in the industrial or shopping center districts.

Ola Bayode and Kyle Umemba, both from Chelsea, are questioning the zoning regulations for marijuana establishments – saying they should be allowed in the downtown area to help local residents and people of color to break into the industry. They said they believe retail marijuana could help to revive the downtown area, and they believe the current zoning unintentionally sets a barrier too high for locals to overcome.

That limits them to the Produce Center, Eastern Avenue or Parkway Plaza, and many in the City have postulated that it has excluded local people unintentionally from being able to participate or profit from this new industry.

The Chelsea City Council had just such a discussion earlier this year, asking if it were possible to set aside licenses for residents who might qualify in the future – that coming because most of the City’s licenses were being gobbled up by big-money interests from out of town, and sometimes out of state.

Now, add Chelsea residents Ola Bayode and Kyle Umemba to those critics.

Both are young professionals working regular jobs, but with a hope on the side that they could establish their own business in Chelsea within the emerging cannabis industry. Being right at the nexus of Boston and Somerville (and with Everett and Revere having prohibited marijuana shops), they felt the downtown area was a prime location.

Then they found out about the zoning restrictions, and found it nearly impossible to draw the interest of investors to be able to afford the buildout of a place in the industrial areas.

“For us, we can’t even find a place,” said Bayode. “The one place we did find was on Broadway and Congress. It was a great location and we went to the City and found it wasn’t allowed. We believe the City Manager and the City Council need to think five to 10 years ahead…Our demographic is not Chelsea residents but people who live in One North and upcoming new Forbes development – people new to Chelsea. We want to provide a premier boutique opportunity here…This is a critical time. This game is the first three years and who is able to navigate the waters early will prevail. It’s hard to grip and replace the incumbent business. That is why it’s so important to create a business friendly environment that is helpful to local residents. Right now is the time for that. Later will be too late.”

Bayode said they believe that retail marijuana would fit really well with the City’s idea for reviving the downtown. Umemba said it is proven that such establishments are more safe because of required security, and the foot traffic brings vibrancy to the areas. Having them walled off, both said, misses a great opportunity to bring people to the business district, and also to help local business-people get into the industry.

“The build-out cost in the industrial areas are so expensive,” said Bayode. “Spaces on Broadway are retail ready. They are made for this. It’s also hard to attract any investors because locating in an area like that doesn’t seem as credible.”

Umemba said he believes the zoning now creates a barrier to local people and people of color – maybe even those who have marijuana convictions and are encouraged by the state to get involved in the industry.

“There’s so much investment that can be brought into the downtown,” he said. “The zoning there now creates an extremely large barrier for individuals. We’re young guys who went to college and now we work. We have middle-class jobs. We want to break into this industry in Chelsea, but the way it’s set up creates an unfair playing field…and Chelsea is progressive compared to others and we still don’t have an equal playing field.”

Both said they plan to talk with elected officials and City leaders over the summer to see if there is room to make such zoning changes – perhaps allowing a few licenses to be located in the downtown and reserved for Chelsea residents.

“If there are four or five at least have one or two for Chelsea people,” Bayode said. “It shouldn’t all be big companies from the outside.”

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