MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A Massachusetts-based cannabis company led a panel discussion Thursday on the potential economic benefits of cannabis for Cape May County.
The event featured business and education leaders and was presented by the cannabis company Insa, which is seeking a state license to grow and sell medical marijuana at a location on Indian Trail Road in Middle Township.
The company has already received the support of the all-Republican Township Committee, a decision bolstered by a favorable report from police Chief Christopher Leusner.
During the virtual meeting Thursday, the discussion centered on the potential economic benefits of a new industry for the county, holding out a promise of good-paying, year-round jobs with benefits.
Doug Burke, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, expressed unreserved excitement at the idea that the proposed facility, if approved, could employ about 100 people.
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“That would catapult Insa to one of the largest employers we have in Cape May County, let alone in Middle Township,” he said.
There’s no getting around the fact that the county has some serious issues, Burke said, including the highest unemployment rate in the state, the lowest median income and poor showings on some other metrics, including the highest number of homeless students.
The county is an important hub for summer visitors, with beloved shore resorts boasting skyrocketing property values and a tourism industry that tops $6 billion a year.
But few tourism jobs remain through the winter, Burke said, and a deep, pandemic-driven recession is likely to make things worse. The county has sought to capitalize on the area’s quality-of-life factors to draw new business investment in the tech sector.
Steve Reilly, co-owner and one of the founders of Insa, said the county reminds him of the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, where the seasons define the economy. Burke said it was refreshing to speak with someone from out of the area who understands the situation.
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Insa is based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, an East Coast state that preceded New Jersey in expanding a medical marijuana market to allow all adults to buy and use cannabis.
The company plans to transform the former La Monica seafood plant on Indian Trail Road in the Burleigh section of the township into a site to grow marijuana for the medical market, and most likely sell on site. The current building will likely be demolished and a new facility built at the 15-acre site. Reilly estimates a $15 million investment.
Before that happens, the company will need a state license, a process that has been stalled by a lawsuit that has delayed an expansion state officials say is needed to meet the demand as the medical marijuana program continues to grow. There are currently six licensed facilities in the entire state, with 24 new licenses set to be approved. Reilly believes his company has a strong application, especially because there are no other medical marijuana facilities in Cape May County.
The landscape changed dramatically on Election Day, when New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum legalizing marijuana in the state. Lawmakers have fast-tracked efforts to approve the framework for a new, taxed and legal marijuana market.
Reilly said there is already an underground market in New Jersey and has been for years. The new law will change it, he said, creating a lawful industry. Some projections suggest the new market could bring in $300 million in tax revenue.
But he said the referendum has not had a major impact on the company’s plans for Middle Township, which remain aimed at a medical dispensary for the site. Even if the operation were expanded to include the non-medical market, he said, that could mean growing additional plants there, for sale at other locations.
Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, everything sold in New Jersey will have to be grown in-state.
But at the remote conference, jobs were the focus throughout the discussion, which included Maria Kellett, dean of the Cape May County campus of Atlantic Cape Community College. She envisioned a training program to get county residents ready for the new cannabis jobs.
“One of the first things we want to do is learn what it is you need and build a training program based on that,” she told the Insa representatives. “I think that will be really exciting to folks in our community.”
Casey Nathan, director of human resources for Insa, said the needed skills go beyond a green thumb. The site will be looking for people with culinary skills, retail experience, accountants and more. But more importantly, she said, the company will want people they can train, saying the company is dedicated to developing a diverse and dedicated staff.
Jobs could range from $15 an hour to salaries of up to six figures, Reilly said. Most are full-time and provide benefits. But don’t print a resume just yet.
“Unfortunately, until we know whether we will get a license, we can’t proceed with any hiring,” Reilly said. “Typically we would look to start hiring once the facility is under construction.”
At least on the conference call, locals seemed enthusiastic about the prospect.
“I think it’s a great opportunity because so many people want to stay in the county. They love it here. It’s beautiful here,” Kellett said.
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