Weed cultivation centers grow jobs in rural Illinois

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Growing marijuana provides above-average wages for semiskilled workers, filling a role once supplied by factory jobs that are dwindling. The average wage at Cresco’s Lincoln facility is about $40,000, drawing workers from throughout Logan County and beyond. "Around here, that’s huge," says Emily Davenport, who chairs the county board.

Workers dressed in hospital scrubs and hair nets tend to plants as they grow from clones until they are harvested, pruning, sorting and trimming them before shipping them off to a facility in Joliet for processing and packaging.

There are jobs that pay more, such as at Logan Correctional Center, where guards start at about $20 per hour. But new sources of jobs have been hard to come by.

"There hasn’t been a lot of growth here in the past 10 years or so," Davenport says. "This was like a miracle."

Many didn’t see it that way when the facility opened in 2015.

"People were skeptical," says former Mayor Seth Goodman, who owns ME Realty in Lincoln. "It’s funneled a lot of money into the community. We’ve sold a lot more homes since it’s come to the area. There have been people who’ve moved here from out of the area and bought quickly. That’s unusual."

Chicago-based Cresco is one of the largest companies in the marijuana business. Its Lincoln facility sits at the edge of town, sandwiched between a grain elevator and a trucking company, and surrounded by corn. It’s nondescript by design, but the company’s growth hasn’t been overlooked. The facility doubled in size to meet a surge in demand for recreational cannabis, which became legal in Illinois last year. With 18 indoor grow rooms and 12 greenhouses, spanning 212,000 square feet, it’s the largest cultivation facility in the state.

Cresco’s expansion came not long after a local bottling factory shut down, eliminating 150 jobs. The parking lot was packed when Cresco held a job fair early last year, according to Jaci Ross, who says she was first in line that January day. She was hired in March, leaving a job in medical billing before the company downsized during the pandemic.

Cultivation is a critical but often overlooked part of the state’s billion-dollar industry of making and selling marijuana for medical and recreational use. There isn’t a precise count of the number of workers employed in growing marijuana. The Illinois Department of Agriculture says there are 3,646 active employees licensed to work in cultivation centers, roughly doubling since December 2019. That compares with 4,931 active licenses for dispensary workers, according to the Department of Financial & Professional Regulation.

The 110 retail pot shops in operation are heavily concentrated in the Chicago area, but the 21 cultivation centers are spread across each of Illinois’ state police districts, many of which are in sparsely populated areas. That was done with more of a focus on spreading the security burden than the economic development benefits, those involved in the process say.

"Had they not done it this way, it would be very easy to imagine all 21 facilities in the greater Chicago area," says Tim O’Hern, chief operating officer of Nature’s Grace & Wellness in Vermont, Ill., a town of about 800 people near McComb.

Nature’s Grace, started on the O’Hern’s family farm in 2015, is the largest employer in town. It has grown to about 145 employees, up from 50 or 60 workers prior to the legalization of recreational marijuana use. The company is looking to add another 30 people.

"We never envisioned it being as large as it is now," he says of the cannabis business, where headcount long ago eclipsed the family farm, which employs about 10 workers full time.

In Barry, a town of about 1,500 people 75 miles away, cannabis grower Ascend Wellness also is the largest employer with about 300 workers, says Mayor Shawn Renneker.

Revolution Global, another cannabis company, also is the largest employer in Delavan, a town of about 1,800 people roughly 50 miles south of Peoria, with about 135 employees, says Mayor Liz Skinner. The company is doubling its facility, which currently generates about $300,000 a year in a tax-increment financing district. "Having that is a boon to our finances," she says.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

July 16, 2021 at 07:58PM

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