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Where the Weed Things Are: Marijuana growers eye former Strawbridge’s, U.S. Steel plant

The Department of Health is expected to award a total of 13 permits to commercial growers to supply medical marijuana for Pennsylvania patients. Two — possibly three — of those permit holders will plant roots in our region.

The former Strawbridge department store on Old York road in Jenkintown, PA.
The former Strawbridge department store on Old York road in Jenkintown, PA.Read moreYardiMatrix

A former retail palace in the suburbs.

A decaying hub of America's industrial might.

A thriving neighborhood in what later became one of the country's most distressed cities.

Those three properties, and more than a dozen others, are in the running to become future centers of marijuana production in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Seventeen aspiring growers have submitted applications to operate in the Philadelphia area with 74 more applications to cultivate tendered for the rest of the state. The Department of Health is expected to award a total of 13 permits to commercial growers to supply medical marijuana for Pennsylvania patients. Two — possibly three — of those permit holders will plant roots in our region.

"There are a lot fewer applicants this time out, but the ones who have applied are of a top-notch quality," said William Roark, the cochair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Committee on Medical Marijuana and Hemp. "It's nothing short of remarkable that here were are, two years from when Gov. Wolf signed the bill into law, and we're about to have 25 grower/processors in the state."

One of the most unusual of the prospective cannabis sites is the former Strawbridge's department store in Jenkintown — an Art-Deco concrete castle that sits on a hill. Two independent groups have proposed marijuana grows for the sprawling former U.S. Steel plant in Fairless Hills. In Chester, a potential cannabis garden is proposed where 54 homes adjacent to a set of railroad tracks were razed.

Other sites include an empty warehouse at Second Street and Erie Avenue in Philadelphia, an oversize plot of land atop a former strip mine in Pottsville, and an undeveloped parcel in Aston, Delaware County, that came within a hair's breadth of winning a grow permit during the first round of licensing by the state.

Donna Ross, CEO of Soulful Wellness of Pa., said her company chose the Strawbridge's location, formally known as Jenkins Court, because it was "a stone's throw from the city."

"We wanted to be close to Philadelphia because that's the community most affected by the opioid crisis," Ross said. Medical marijuana was approved in April as a treatment for opioid withdrawal by the state Department of Health. Soulful Wellness, Ross said, is owned by a group of doctors, lawyers, and pharmaceutical executives who have paired with a former principal who worked with a Colorado marijuana company. The company prides itself on its diversity. "We're black-owned and unashamedly so," Ross said. "There is not enough diversity in this industry. We aim to fix that."

The U.S. Steel plant in Fairless Hills, about 20 miles north of Philadelphia, is eyed by two growers looking to repurpose an expanse of the 4,000 acre industrial site. PharmaCann Penn Plant is an Illinois-based company with marijuana operations in several states and already has a permit to open three dispensaries in Pennsylvania. MLH Explorations is an arm of MainLine Investment Partners, a private equity group based in Wynnewood, which has aligned itself with Thomas Jefferson University to conduct cannabis research.

If both PharmaCann and MLH Explorations win permits, the companies could share infrastructure resources for "business synergies" with the idea of building the foundation of a "medical-marijuana research triangle," said PharmaCann's Jeremy Unruh.

MLH Explorations also intends to apply for a "clinical research" permit under another section of the state's marijuana law. Its play for a commercial license is seen by industry experts as a hedge against the state's research program being delayed by further lawsuits contesting its constitutionality. Spokesperson Anthony Campisi said MLH Explorations, and its Solterra Health subsidiary, was looking forward "to serving patients as quickly as possible."

Further down the Delaware River, Agri-Kind has designs on a former residential neighborhood along Broomall Street in Chester. An offshoot of Agronomed Pharmaceuticals of Exton, Agri-Kind bought the parcel from the city redevelopment authority, said CEO Jon Cohn. Agronomed previously applied but did not win a permit to operate a grow/processing plant in Pottstown.

Information about many of the other candidates and their proposed locations is difficult to come by because the Department of Health will not release the applications until after the permits have been awarded. That's not expected until the fall.

Other companies vying for a  grower/processor permit include:

  1. PHL CanGrow LLC, which has plans for a former warehouse at the intersection of Second Street and Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia. PHL CanGrow is headed by Les Hollis, CEO of Illinois Grown Medicine of Chicago.

  2. DocHouse LLC, an Elkins Park-based company is helmed by attorney Justin Moriconi. The firm, which applied in the first round of permitting, has zoning approval in Pottsville to put a grow on top of a former coal mine overlooking the Fairlane Village Mall in Schuylkill County.

  3. Matrix-PA LLC, owned by Nevada grower, Delaware resident, and Philadelphia philanthropist David Tuttleman — is looking to occupy a former industrial space in Avondale, Chester County. No further information was available.

  4. M3C Agriculture LLC, founded by three former Mennonite school chums, hopes for another chance to build a cannabis growing facility at the Eagle Industrial Park, in Leola, Lancaster County.

  5. MedGarden, LLC, which placed a close third in the region during the first round of state permitting, is associated with the McKee Group, a major real estate developer in the region. MedGarden's property is adjacent to a quarry on the 400 block of Knowlton Road in Aston, Delaware County.

  6. Pennstar Med, LLC, which applied in the first round of state permitting, wants to put a grow on an undisclosed parcel in Philadelphia. CEO Darryl Hill, who describes the company as "100 percent owned by ethnic minorities," could not be reached for comment.

  7. Soulful Harvest, LLC, which is not related to applicant Soulful Wellness, and SOL of Pennsylvania, LLC are also seeking grows at an undisclosed locations in Philadelphia.

Additional applications were filed by TrueMed Health Care Pa., for a West Conshohocken facility; SC Pennsylvania LLC for an operation in Tremont, Schuylkill County; Tribe Penn, LLC, for a grow in Bristol Township, Bucks County; Delaware Valley Health and Wellness LLC for a plant in Birdsboro, Berks County; and Greenmart of Pennsylvania, LLC, for a site in Chester.