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While Brockton drags its feet on dispensaries, an entrepreneur perseveres in spite of prohibitionists
Despite being a well-known entrepreneur in Brockton, where his company, Natural Agricultural Products, is trying to build three recreational dispensaries, Gary Leonard comes off as more of an independent businessman than a big corporate cannabis type. There’s a growing team behind his effort, but he’s right there in the trenches, wrestling a labyrinthine Brocktonian bureaucracy that’s hellbent on fighting the inevitable.
I first met Leonard several months ago and have paid some attention to developments in Brockton cannabis. In Good Health, located just west of Route 24, has been operating a medical dispensary since 2015 and will soon move into the recreational market as well. Leonard, on the other hand, is eyeing downtown, where as recently as 2015 he held a position as the city’s main street manager, tasked with helping to revitalize the depressed corridor.
With bans or moratoriums on cannabis of various durations and parameters in every municipality around Brockton—Avon, Abington, Whitman, Holbrook, Stoughton, Easton, and East and West Bridgewater—the city’s fate on this front is something the cannabis community should pay attention to. To the end, I drove down to meet with Leonard at the legendary Cape Cod Pizza in the Campello section on the south side of the city to ask what is taking so long, among other things.
What’s your relevant background for trying to do what you’re doing?
I’m a lifelong Brocktonian. I come from a political family—my father was a city councilor. We’ve been involved in the city, and in charity organizations and volunteerism for years. I am passionate about my city. I have lived here all my life, I am on the board for the Signature Healthcare hospital foundation. … I’ve been active in the Save Our Sports program so the kids in Brockton don’t have to pay to play sports, we’re the only city in Massachusetts that does not have to pay to play.
How has Brockton changed in the area where you are trying to put dispensaries?
When I was a youngster, Brockton was bustling with 15-20,000 people in the downtown area, every single day seven days a week. Working, shopping, pushing baby carriages, it was the place to go. Both of my grandmothers used to walk down there every day because that’s where the activity was. That’s where everybody was. We had five movie theaters—we have none now. We had duckpin bowling and regular bowling—we have none anymore. We had restaurants galore, plus all the big supermarkets were here.
Brockton High School was also downtown, so the parents used to drop the kids off then do their shopping. In 1970, they built a new high school on the west side of Brockton near the highway. That took away a lot of the foot traffic that was downtown. Then, in somebody’s bright wisdom, they also implemented one-way streets downtown. That really was the icing on the cake—people weren’t able to navigate where they wanted to go, and what businesses they wanted to go to. It became kind of a ghost town.
What have people like you, who have some power and influence in this town, done to try to correct that?
I don’t have any political aspirations in this town, but I do get involved with politics as a fundraiser. I have been very involved with the business associations here in Brockton; I’m a past president and director of all of them.
What’s your model for what your company would like to do downtown?
I took the model from Boulder, Colorado. I had the opportunity to go out there to meet the mayor, cannabis commissioner, and their marijuana advisory council. Some people would say the demographics are not alike because they are surrounded by mountains, but we’re the gateway to the Cape.
Boulder businesses do not open up until 11 o’clock in the morning, and once they open up they have to be fully staffed. Boulder has the same population as Brockton [Ed. note: Roughly 100,000, give or take], but outside of Boulder it’s just one house per thousand acres. It’s all farmland. When you step out of Brockton, you have more than 200,000 more people you can market to. That’s quite a difference. Boulder pulled in $18 million in tax revenue last year, so you can imagine what kind of tax revenue will be generated in a city like Brockton.
How much of an ongoing issue for Brockton government is the lack of finance and tax revenue?
For I can’t remember how long, teachers in Brockton have been getting pink-slipped at the end of the year. We’re talking about hundreds of teachers—some get called back, but the point is Brockton has become very dependant on state and federal funding. They haven’t learned how to become self-sufficient, and the model I’m presenting here is a change for them to not have to worry about getting cut every year.
How long have you been pushing this plan?
For about a year and a half now. Mostly doing development and research. I wasn’t very familiar with the product until now. … I was approached by one of my vendors, whose son had been watching this industry. He told me the idea he had, and I kind of shrugged it off and said I didn’t know enough. I’m an industrial commercial realtor, I’m a busy guy. So we took a trip and went to Boulder and in four days I got an education that I couldn’t have obtained in years.
One mistake that Boulder made at first was to put dispensaries on the outskirts of the city, and so people [driving in from outside] just went to the closest dispensary to them. It didn’t help the business community whatsoever. They finally figured this out after a year and a half—that this clientele also has disposable income. They corralled the dispensaries, and the new applicants, and had people go into their downtown. Now they have 38 dispensaries in their downtown, but you can’t find them unless you ask—there’s no fanfare, there’s no big blinking signs, it’s discreet. And people no matter where they live have to pass through the city. Why make the mistake that others made when you already have a model of success?
What is the technical quagmire holding you back right now?
There’s no host agreement in Brockton. I did submit a [proposed] host agreement to the mayor. It was a one-year agreement, which means the mayor didn’t have to go through the City Council. But he decided to wait and see where the City Council was going with it on the zoning part. That was in March.
They’re trying to drag it out until December, so the soonest I would be able to get my license is February or March.
What’s your message going forward?
I’m all in.
I am here to make Brocktonians more wealthy than they are. We’ll run between 90 and 110 employees. We already have 32 or 33 people—a human resource person, growers, trained dispensary managers. They’re ready to go.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.