Modern-day prospectors didn't spare any part of St. Joseph as they scoured the city for available buildings that could accommodate a medical marijuana business.
It's a frenzy that might be reminiscent of St. Joseph's Gold Rush days, but this time it's Missouri's new medical cannabis law that drives dreams of striking it rich.
"Everyone wants to get in on the ground floor," said Clint Thompson, St. Joseph's director of planning and community development. "There's been extreme interest. We've done no less than 50 zoning verification letters."
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services received 55 applications for medical marijuana businesses in Buchanan County. That includes proposals for 39 dispensaries, eight grow facilities and six manufacturing sites. No part of St. Joseph was excluded, with applications for proposed locations on King Hill Avenue, St. Joseph Avenue and Frederick Avenue.
There were 13 dispensaries proposed for the Belt Highway, as well as applications to develop manufacturing and cultivation operations for an industrial site at 402 Messanie St. and former grocery stores at 3734 Pear St. and 2300 Mitchell Ave. The city already approved a zoning change for the Mitchell Avenue site, but the state has not acted on any licensing requests.
Chris McHugh is heading a group that wants to develop a manufacturing, growing and dispensing operation under one roof at 402 Messanie St. That building is currently the site of Scot Young Research, a company that makes cleaning products.
"We saw an opportunity to create a business that we thought would be very profitable," said McHugh, a Kansas City attorney whose group is working to purchase the building. "That's the truth of it. The city of St. Joseph is very friendly to marijuana businesses. The square footage is relatively cheap."
There's just one hitch for McHugh and any other entrepreneur looking to get into the medical marijuana business. The state of Missouri can't possibly approve all of the applications.
The state recorded more than 2,100 medical marijuana facility applications, but officials only plan to approve a fifth of that number. Statewide, the department will grant licences to 10 laboratory facilities, 60 cultivation facilities, 88 manufacturing sites and 192 dispensaries.
"There are not a whole lot of times when you get to be on the cusp of an emerging market," said Chris Johnson, who leads a group seeking to develop a cultivation and manufacturing facility at the former Apple Market building at 3734 Pear St. It's currently a furniture store, but Johnson is seeking to acquire that building and change the zoning classification. The city staff recommended against the zoning change.
Johnson, who is from Grain Valley, said some applicants are viewing the process as a lottery. They offer little more than an address and hopes for a viable business.
Others invest considerable money before wading into the tall weeds of the state's regulatory requirements. Johnson expects his group to spend up to $250,000 on attorneys, fees and preparation work. McHugh is anticipating a need for $3 million in working capital to launch a start-up business that no bank will touch. He brought in experts from states with legal marijuana, including a grower and a dispensary manager.
"All the money, all the financing, will come from private investors, private equity," he said. "The learning curve is beyond steep. As I say all the time, we're building the airplane as we fly it."
The state has suggested licenses could be awarded as soon as next month, but McHugh wouldn't be surprised to see it delayed until later in 2019. He wouldn't expect to see any medical cannabis available to qualifying patients until next summer at the earliest.
In other parts of Missouri, the state received applications for 51 dispensaries in Boone County, 81 in Greene County, 181 in Jackson County and 300 combined in St. Louis City and St. Louis County.
There were 12 marijuana license applications in Nodaway County, seven in DeKalb County, six in Livingston County, four each in Andrew and Clinton counties, three in Grundy County, two each in Daviess and Gentry counties and one in Harrison County.