Since the decline of the once-mighty U.S. steel industry, the American Rust Belt has struggled to find a new economic engine — cannabis could be it.
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]epending on the source, John Fetterman is either America’s coolest mayor, the mayor of rust or the mayor of hell; this is what you get when you look like like a character out of a Frank Miller comic, or a Chuck Palahnuik novel — Fetterman is six-foot-eight, with a long, black goatee, a smooth bullet of a shaved head and tattoos on both arms.
It’s also what happens when you spend twelve years as mayor of a Rust Belt town that’s lost 90 percent, of everything: 90 percent of its population and 90 percent of its buildings — which followed the loss of 90 percent of the jobs in the local steel industry, the lifeblood of Braddock, Pennsylvania a generation ago.
Fetterman has become a figure of some national celebrity (he once appeared on the “Colbert Report”) for his personality, but also for his monumental task; revive one of Pennsylvania’s many financially distressed cities without any clear economic engine with which to do it.
He wears the titles as an honorific, the same way he’d like to wear the latest title he’s angling for: mayor of a marijuana town.
Pennsylvania is entering the medical-marijuana game — with the state set to license its first dispensaries and cultivation centers later this year — and Fetterman is hoping that two licenses to produce marijuana will be issued to a new company that wants to do business on an abandoned parcel in Braddock.
If the plan succeeds, Braddock would be the first hard-luck Rust Belt town in western Pennsylvania to see its fortunes reversed thanks to cannabis.
Braddock has been an “Act 47” town, on the state’s list of officially financially distressed cities, since 1988.
As the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported, area elected officials believe marijuana could “single-handedly” take the city off that list.
Fetterman echoed that sentiment to local news station WPXI after the Braddock City Council voted in favor of allowing a cultivation facility in town:
“A decline of the steel industry is what brought us into Act 47, and the emergence of the brand-new industry, medical marijuana, could be the thing that bring us out of it,”
It’s no sure thing — the state won’t start issuing licenses until the summertime, and only two licenses are allotted for the 11-county area in southwestern Pennsylvania where Braddock is located.
And even if cannabis does come, it won’t rescue the town overnight.
No more than 70 workers will be employed at what Laurel Green Medical, LLC hopes to build: a 100,000-square-foot cultivation and extraction factory, capable of growing 20,000 pounds of cannabis a year and extracting 3,000 pounds of oil.
If all goes to plan, it could generate $1 million in annual tax revenue — no small sum for an area where the annual budget is currently $1.85 million.
The state is expected to announce license-winners sometime in June. If Laurel Green Medical wins the permit — and Fetterman wins his town back — expect other cities with the “tombstones” of empty factories to try and follow suit.
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