North Andover, Massachusetts lost a massive factory, which provided thousands of jobs to the town, more than a decade ago. When an also-massive marijuana operation came along to replace them, the townsfolk turned it down — in fear of what pot could do to their community.
Even if you have never heard of the Western Electric factory in North Andover, Massachusetts, you know the story.
At one point, more than 12,000 people built transmission equipment for telecom giant AT&T at the 2 million-square foot Merrimack Valley Works — one of those jobs where fathers and sons could expect to work the same job from one generation to the next, sometimes side-by-side.
But then, in 2007, the jobs moved overseas to cut costs. The whole region took a hit, and in the ensuing decade, no industry has offered itself up as a replacement.
Until now. Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana on Election Night 2016, the same night Donald Trump was elected president on the promise of bringing bygone blue-collar jobs back to coal mines and factories like Western Electric.
It wasn’t Trump but an oncologist who presented North Andover with a plan for the factory, and for putting the grandchildren of Western Electric back to work at the old factory. Jeff Goldstein, who used to work at a local hospital before heading overseas to Israel — the current global leader in cannabis research — bought the old factory site in 2003.
He planned to convert the old Merrimack Valley Works into an $100 million, 1.1 million-square-foot cannabis cultivation, testing and research complex, which would have made it one of the largest marijuana companies on earth.
Goldstein promised he could create 1,500 jobs now, and more later. Not quite Western Electric, but not bad — and better than anything else coming down the pike, which was nothing at all, town selectmen reminded their citizens.
And the town said no.
At a Jan. 30 town meeting, by a vote of 1,430 to 1,155, the people of North Andover voted to ban recreational marijuana facilities, as the Boston Globe reported. The ban kills off Goldstein’s plan for a marijuana facility at the old Western Electric site.
What happened? How did a blue-collar town without blue-collar jobs justify turning up its nose at the only offer on the table? The usual: Decades-old stigma and negative attitudes towards marijuana.
“People said, ‘Where did this come from? What are you doing to my town?’” said Charles Salisbury, a former town official who led opposition to Goldstein’s pot factory dreams, in comment to The Globe.
A local real-estate agent warned that the new economic activity would depress property values. Other worriers felt that approval of the marijuana complex, which earned majority voter approval last year but not a two-thirds supermajority, was moving too fast.
The real-estate argument is a demonstrated fallacy. In Denver, demand for cannabis production space led to an affordability crisis, meaning that property values actually rose at an exceptionally high rate.
“I know it’s not what we all want, but it’s what we have before us,” Selectman Richard Vaillancourt, a former worker at the factory in Western Electric days, told the meeting, according to the Globe.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any manufacturing coming back here,” he added. “I’d really like to see that building brought back to life.”
North Andover’s act brings a metaphor to mind: The town’s nose fell off a decade ago, and would rather have a skeletal hole in its face than accept a prosthesis connected to cannabis. But you know this story, too. Cannabis is not perfect, but it offers promise. Decades of successful programming, designed to make a relatively benign plant with medical value appear as a deadly scourge, is breaking that promise before it can be tested.
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