By mid-2021, Pine Bluff is expected to have a new employer arriving in town that will provide as many as 200 jobs paying an average of $19 an hour, and an annual payroll of $9.4 million including benefits.
Good Day Farm Arkansas LLC, a medical-marijuana cultivator licensed by the state, received approval last month from the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission to purchase Natural State Wellness Enterprises of Newport and to move the operation to Pine Bluff, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.
Scott Hardin, spokesman for the department, said the commission took action in two steps.
"First, they considered the sale of Natural State Wellness to Good Day Farms and they first approved that," Hardin told the Pine Bluff Commercial. "Then, once that was approved, on a separate action, they approved the transfer to Pine Bluff."
Alex Gray, a Little Rock attorney, who is an investor in the operation, said the cultivation facility is expected to open by midyear in Jefferson County Industrial Park.
"We're constructing a 42,000-square-foot canopy facility in the industrial park," Gray said. "We'll have 100,000 square feet under roof but our grow area is 42,000 square feet."
Gray said Good Day Farm Arkansas will continue to operate out of the Natural State Wellness Newport facility until the Pine Bluff site is ready to begin production.
"As soon as the Pine Bluff location is ready to go and [the Alcohol Beverage Control Board] approves it, we'll shut down on a Friday and move everything on Saturday morning," he said.
Gray said the vast majority of the people hired for the Pine Bluff operation will be from Jefferson County although he said some current employees in Newport will be offered jobs if they are willing to relocate.
"With 200 jobs, if there are people at the current facility that want to continue then that's something we definitely want," he said. "But currently, there aren't a whole lot of employees so we'll be doing a significant amount of hiring in the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County area."
Gray said the Newport facility has about 20 employees. He said that initially, once the Pine Bluff operation opens, it will employ 170 people.
In documents provided to the Pine Bluff Commercial by the finance department, the Medical Marijuana Commission received letters supporting the sale and transfer from Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson; Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington; Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Rep. Kenneth Ferguson, D-Pine Bluff; Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Allison Thompson, president and CEO of the Jefferson County Economic Alliance; and Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley.
Gray said the operation has about 70 investors, many from Arkansas, and others from around the Southeast.
"They see this as a really neat opportunity and they believe in the program and in the medical efficacies of medical cannabis," he said. "There's money from out of state that's being invested in Pine Bluff, Ark., and it's pretty neat to see."
By the time the operation is up and running, Gray said it is estimated that $25 million will have been invested, and he pointed out that the money will be spent before the first ounce of medical cannabis is produced. He said the selection of Pine Bluff came down to a number of factors.
"We were looking for a facility that was a kind of manufacturing and warehouse facility that's big enough to house what we're doing," he said. "We wanted to be located in an area that was a county that's been identified as one that needs economic development growth. Also, we know the people in Pine Bluff and Mayor Washington and Judge Robinson, they're just good folks and we look forward to helping to continue the economic development that's been taking place there."
Robinson said the cultivation operation moving to Jefferson County was some welcome economic news.
"I have sat down with them and they have different salary breakdowns for the employees and it will be a big economic boost for Jefferson County," Robinson said.
The county judge said the figures he has seen indicate that salaries will range between $32,000 and $84,000 a year.
"Those are just starting salaries," he said.
Despite the economic uncertainties presented by the coronavirus pandemic, Robinson said Jefferson County has benefited over the past two years from numerous economic development activities that he said are bringing new life to the area.
"Think about this," he said. "Look back two years and look ahead two years from now. In that time we will have added nearly 2,000 jobs to our economy, and I'm talking about well-paid professional jobs. These aren't just manual labor jobs. These are good jobs that pay good salaries."
Arkansas voters approved Amendment 98 to the constitution, legalizing the sale and use of medical marijuana, in the 2016 general election by a 53% margin. Since then, according to a June poll conducted by Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College, 67.5% of likely Arkansas voters polled expressed support for the use of medical marijuana, 20.5% of those polled opposed it, and 12% were unsure.
In an email, Hardin said the demand for medical marijuana has been strong since sales began.
"Since the first dispensary opened in May 2019, Arkansans have spent $187 million to obtain 28,764 pounds of medical marijuana," he said in the email. "We anticipate sales will reach $200 million and 30,000 pounds by the end of December."
Hardin said there are 37 licensed dispensaries in the state, 31 of which are in operation, and that the Medical Marijuana Commission voted Thursday night to issue the 38th license.
Hardin said there are eight licensed cultivators in the state, which is the maximum number allowed by law, five of which are actively operating and three of which are in development.
With the addition of Good Day Farm, Jefferson County will have two cultivation operations. The other one, Natural State Medicinals, is in White Hall.