A small community on the outskirts of Reading says it was “blindsided” when a Chicago-based cannabis company, backed by Philadelphia philanthropist Chase Lenfest, was awarded a permit to open a huge marijuana-growing facility in its midst.
“There was no notice, no conversations,” said South Heidelberg Township Manager Sean McKee. “That’s not normal.”
The company, Prime Wellness LLC, won one of the state’s 12 highly coveted permits to grow and process medical marijuana. A reporter from the Reading Eagle broke the news to McKee on June 20, minutes after the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced the awards.
“We were blindsided, 100 percent,” McKee said. “It’s not like they’re looking to build an ice cream store. It’s a polarizing project.”
Since then, McKee said, in meetings with the township, local police and emergency responders to review the project, Prime Wellness has been “very open, forthcoming, transparent.”
Prime Wellness, which did not respond to requests for comment, is scheduled to make a pitch to the community at a town hall meeting on Tuesday night.
If the project is approved, about 40 people would work at a 30,000-square-foot facility surrounded by cornfields in rural Berks County. The location is one of the two closest growing sites to Philadelphia.
Community opposition could delay or even kill the project. In 2014, a citizens group successfully scuttled a $1 billion gas-to-liquids plant proposed by Canadian petrochemical company EmberClear for the same South Heidelberg industrial park.
“That was a total uprising,” said Tom Byrne, chairman of the South Heidelberg Board of Supervisors. “But the marijuana project hasn’t met nearly the same resistance.”
The Tuesday night meeting will give people the chance “to ask questions and poke holes” in the plan before it goes before the planning commission for a vote, Byrne said.
By state mandate, Prime Wellness must open by Christmas week or risk losing its permit. At the very least, hashing out a zoning agreement could postpone construction, force the company to set up temporary growing “pods,” and delay production of the cannabis.
“It’s up to the community to decide what businesses come into the community,” said April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health. “If a facility cannot become operational, then it risks losing its permit. But we’re a long way from that.”
If disapproval were fierce, Prime Wellness would have to apply to build in another location. Hutcheson said she was not aware of any significant opposition to other medical-marijuana growing or dispensing sites in the state.
Because South Heidelberg participates in a joint zoning board, two neighboring townships also will have to approve the Prime Wellness project, Byrne said.
He added that municipal revenues from the project would be slight. “It’s not likely to reduce residential taxes,” he said.
The company has promised to hire local contractors and use local banks, Byrne said. Prime Wellness also is talking to the township about improving roads and investing in a sports facility.
Chase Lenfest, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who runs the Lenfest Group, did not return several calls seeking comment. He is also a co-founder of High Street Capital Partners, a Chicago-based private-equity fund that is heavily invested in national cannabis businesses.
Lenfest is the son of philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.