What do a Pier 1 Imports, Papa Gino’s and mom-and-pop appliance store have in common? Very little, except buildings they’ve vacated are now occupied by the latest retail craze: marijuana.
Many of America’s strip malls, plazas and box stores are shells of what they once were — economic engines and cultural resources of convenience that boomed and then fizzled.
Today, they’re representative of another time, when Filene’s Basement was a go-to favorite and Radio Shack a destination for any electronics owner. It was the age of Fashion Bug, Dress Barn, Strawberries and Borders.
Most of these retail icons are long gone or teetering on decline, but the buildings they once inhabited are still standing. While some strip malls have been able to reestablish themselves with a diverse slate of new tenants, many are neglected, falling into disrepair and often maligned as eyesores — especially when they’re vacant.
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Enter the cannabis industry, America’s newest commercial real estate occupant. Long-stigmatized and criminalized, cannabis is now being sold and cultivated at highly visible, everyday shopping centers in states where it’s been legalized.
It’s happening throughout New England and across the nation.
“You can go almost anywhere after they’ve legalized cannabis and see the pattern,” said Ryan George, CEO of 420 Property, a cannabis real estate platform. “I’ve seen everything from Blockbusters, to old fast food restaurants, to standalone Ace Hardwares. It really is replacing a lot of the older retail stores from the early-to-late ’90s.”
In Massachusetts, which this year hit $3 billion in recreational cannabis sales, the industry is “hiring people and filling storefronts,” said David O’Brien, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association.
“The very place you’d open up any other retail shop is a great space for cannabis,” O’Brien said, citing parking and ease of access. “An empty storefront gets filled and it’s creating jobs and tax revenue. It may bring more foot traffic to businesses to the left or right or to the whole block.”
Need real estate for cannabis? 420 Property is the ‘Zillow’ of weed
George created 420 Property, a “Zillow” of sorts for cannabis real estate, after brokers and landlords “laughed at me or banged the phone in my ear” when he tried to talk to them about potential cannabis clients.
He wanted to create a one-stop shop for property eligible to be rented, bought and developed by cannabis businesses — based on local zoning and structural attributes. Since its founding, 420 Property has serviced more than 1 million users worldwide, George said, and sees about 30,000-50,000 monthly users across the nation.
The website currently sports about 50 listings in Massachusetts, for example, for potential cannabis retail and cultivation locations. Featured are several industrial buildings in Worcester, and cannabis-zoned land lots in West Boylston, Norwell, Concord and Foxborough. There’s a full-scale farm in North Dighton and a former regional shopping mall in the Berkshires.
A turn-of-the-century mill in Gilbertville, an unincorporated village about 20 miles west of of Worcester, is listed as needing a “complete rehab,” but it’s zoned for all cannabis uses. The mill is 115,000 square feet with 5 acres, and the community is very interested in developing it, the listing states.
In Providence, Rhode Island, an empty commercial building with “We Buy Gold” signs still in the windows is listed as a “rare opportunity.” In nearby North Smithfield is an 80,000-square-foot former medical device manufacturing facility that could be transformed.
A 10-room potential “bud and breakfast” in seaside tourist town Ogunquit, Maine is listed for sale for $2.1 million.
“They’re all a little quirky,” said George. He’s seen cannabis move into a development of climate-controlled glass houses in the middle of the California desert and a closed Tyson chicken factory in the Midwest.
“Tyson had put in $30 million into this building,” he said. “It’s a manufacturing facility turned into cannabis manufacturing facility. And, from what I understand, they’re working quite hard to build up the employee base and revitalize the entire town.”
George feels communities often try to keep cannabis “off the beaten path” or “away from Main Street.” But there’s a lot to be gained by using the industry as a revitalization tool, he said.
“It is somewhat of a domino effect because there is a lot of foot traffic,” George said. “There is a business now in that empty spot supplying the residents of that local area with jobs. When you have money flowing into a community like that, it’s like a capital injection.”
Closed Pier 1 Imports in Braintree becoming medical marijuana business
An analysis by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council showed Greater Boston has thousands of acres of strip malls and similar commercial properties, many of which are “underutilized, underperforming or obsolete.”
On a commercial thoroughfare in Braintree not far from the South Shore Plaza, a now-closed Barnes and Noble is undergoing renovations adjacent to a BuyBuyBaby.
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Next door, a self-standing box store once filled by Pier 1 Imports has sat vacant since 2020. The home furnishing chain’s parent company announced it was filing for bankruptcy, and the Braintree location was one of 450 stores that closed nationwide.
Soon, where customers used to survey stylish vases, placemats and pillows, marijuana will be passing over the counters. Native Sun Cannabis, a company already operating dispensaries in Hudson and North Attleboro, is renovating the old Pier 1 into a medical marijuana retail store and cultivation facility.
“You can see it from the highway and it’s just sitting there,” said Caitlyn Woodward-Samson, vice president of retail for Native Sun. “I’m constantly working with Realtors on what’s coming available, and when this came up, we actually approached the owner and decided to go down a medical path, which we hadn’t before.”
Native Sun seeks to normalize the cannabis shopping experience, and its real estate choices reflect that, said Woodward-Samson. Its Hudson dispensary is across the street from a major commercial development with a Market Basket, BJ’s, Cabela’s and Panera Bread.
“Finding locations that are in mainstream or traditional retail areas really helps with that normalization,” said Christina Alario, Native Sun’s marketing manager. “It’s another errand on your list to run for the day.”
She added, “Dispensaries a lot of time sit back in these industrial parks, and it feels like you’re still doing something wrong. We just want to make this a normal retail experience.”
Construction will soon be underway at the more than 10,000 square-foot gutted Pier 1 building, creating an indoor aesthetic of “accessible luxury” — a well-lit store with comfortable check-in and waiting areas, and a “beautiful” sales display floor where “our vibe is everything,” said Woodward-Samson. Native Sun hopes to open there in 2023.
“(A cannabis business) drives the traffic,” she said. “It becomes an anchor spot. And when people are looking to put other businesses in the area, that’s guaranteed foot traffic.”
Asked if they’ll pay any homage to the former big box store occupier of their space, Alario laughed, “The one thing that Pier 1 does really well is they are focused on their aesthetic and display, which is definitely similar to us.”
Buying cannabis in an old appliance and furniture store
Stoves, washing machines and flooring samples used to fill the showroom at Kahians, a longtime family-owned appliance and furniture retail outlet in Middleborough, Massachusetts.
The business closed several years back, focusing on its Plymouth location, and the 1980s-era building sat vacant on busy Route 44.
“It had literally been an eyesore on a major (road),”said Ryan Crandall, chief product officer and senior vice president of sales at MariMed, Inc. “It was the way to get to the Cape for a long time. This specific store had looked the same for 40 years and was really dilapidated.”
“It was a business in a great location,” said Crandall. “It just really needed a lot of energy and effort.”
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Crandall, who grew up about 10 miles from the Middleborough location, said he’s seen many instances when derelict properties were “brought into a new place” by the cannabis industry.
“And not just the properties themselves, but the overall area those properties reside in,” he said. “We’ve done a very good job with identifying properties that are of high value to the community if they were fixed up, and ultimately providing more revenue and working opportunities.”
MariMed brought the building up to code, grinded down cement floors, and installed drop-lighting and reclaimed wood. Crandall said the Panacea dispensary is 6,000 to 7,000 square feet of retail space, and the backside is a warehouse for non-cannabis ingredients and packaging. Upstairs is additional storage, and there’s possibility for a social consumption lounge downstairs.
“From the time the parking lot was getting repainted, to when the signs went up, throughout every stage of this, people from the community have come in and made comments how refreshing it is to see a store that’s been an eyesore for so long really be a revitalized piece of the community,” said Crandall.
The Middleborough renovation is not MariMed’s first go-around with rehabbing older properties. In Metropolis, Illinois, the company operates a dispensary in an old auto dealership. Crandall said it offered a “huge amount of parking” and large glass windows with natural sunlight.
In Hagerstown, Maryland, MariMed purchased an old three-story furniture factory that had been vacant for a decade. The state-of-the-art cannabis cultivation and production facility now employs more than 50 full-time people who live within a 5-mile radius, Crandall said.
Pizza and cannabis: Closed Papa Gino’s transformed into dispensaries
Nearly 50 locations of the popular New England pizzeria chain Papa Gino’s closed in 2018, leaving holes in major commercial areas where for decades the green, red and white awnings indicated thin-crust pizza and breadsticks.
In at least two Massachusetts communities, former Papa Gino’s locations are now dishing out marijuana — or will soon be.
In Framingham, Nova Farms transformed a closed 3,000-square-foot Papa Gino’s into a recreational marijuana shop, incorporating natural elements such as stonework and wooden ceiling beams.
In neighboring Natick, another Papa Gino’s is slated to get a makeover from reLeaf Alternative, also as a marijuana shop. The Natick Planning Board recently approved reLeaf’s proposed site plan for the former restaurant, and is expected to take up final special permitting steps by the end of August.
Tourists, outlet malls and cannabis?
In Kittery, Maine, which boasts “America’s Maine Street for shopping,” the changing face of the Kittery Outlets has been apparent for years. Many tenants have closed up shop and vacated the retail strip that attracts 3.5 million visitors annually.
But remaining stores such as Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger and Yankee Candle will soon share the Route 1 stretch with a retail marijuana store. Tree Tips 3 LLC has been cleared to open in a vacant outlet space sporting more than 2,700 square feet.
Theory Wellness is the entity behind the new Kittery business, and already has experience with selling cannabis in strip malls. In South Portland, a Theory Wellness location currently operates in a former MattressFirm in the commercial area surrounding the Maine Mall.
Over the last decade-plus, the town of Kittery has been exploring ways to redevelop the stretch of outlet stores into a live, work, play environment as brick-and-mortar shopping trends change, while still maintaining the millions of tax dollars the stores contribute each year.
Not all strip malls love cannabis
Cannabis and strip malls aren’t a favored pairing for all communities.
In Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in March denied a special exception for a medical marijuana dispensary to open in a former Payless Shoe Source storefront in Walnut Hill Plaza. Other businesses in the plaza include Saver’s, Planet Fitness, Taco Bell and GameStop.
According to reporting from WPRI, board members felt the dispensary was “not in compliance with the character of neighborhood,” citing a children’s trampoline park in the same strip mall.
At the time, one of the owners of R.M.I. Compassion Center, the cannabis business, said he would appeal the decision to the Superior Court.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Marijuana, cannabis stores replace old retail businesses, strip malls
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