Steven Fuhr opened the gate guarding his indoor marijuana farm and shaded his eyes against a burst of sunlight.
Crossing the yard bordering his grow, Fuhr stopped to point out his two largest neighbors in the business park: A wood pellet manufacturer to the right; a recently-shuttered power pole mill to the left. In the field between the two, Fuhr could pick out a half-dozen marijuana production facilities, most hidden inside nondescript metal buildings.
Not long ago, this swath of industrial park at the Port of Shelton was buried under piles of lumber. As the timber industry declined, and forest products businesses contracted, legal marijuana producers filled the gaps.
“This has become a cannabis community, when once this entire yard was a lumber storage yard,” Fuhr said. “This was all logging.”
Fuhr’s Toucan Farms is of one of about two dozen marijuana producers that have gravitated to the rural Shelton area in the past three years, in search of cannabis-friendly regulations, cheap land and a low cost of living. In the process, the businesses have injected a welcome jolt of employment and capital to a corner of Puget Sound staggered by lost forestry jobs.
One marijuana startup is investing more than $5 million to transform an abandoned wood products laboratory on the Shelton waterfront into a state-of-the-art growing operation. The Black Diamond Biotech facility will employ about 50 people when it’s up and running later this year. Most will have advanced college degrees.
“We’re bringing back a bunch of PhDs — people with biology, horticulture, biochemistry, genetics, genomics — that otherwise there’d be no reason for,” Black Diamond co-owner Andrew Lange said.
Eager to attract jobs, politicians have reluctantly embraced cannabis as a renewable resource that can help revive the region’s wilted economy. Mason County Commissioner Randy Neatherlin believes marijuana farms already employ hundreds of his constituents.
“That’s buying Christmas presents for kids and putting food on the table,” Neatherlin said. “How do I turn up my nose at that?”
The dilapidated complex Black Diamond Biotech is renovating on the waterfront was once at the heart of a timber empire.
Founded in the late 1800s, Shelton flourished as a logging boomtown on the shores of Oakland Bay, where a tendril of Puget Sound snakes between forested peninsulas. Workers streamed in by the steamer load to fill camps and mills. Trains clamored down the town’s main street, carrying colossal trunks to the waterfront. Simpson Lumber Company and other mills employed hundreds of laborers, while chemists experimented with synthetic materials like rayon and cellophane at the Rayonier laboratory, now home to Black Diamond.
“Probably no other town in the nation is as dependent on forest products as is Shelton,” the Seattle Times remarked in 1953.
The dependency that fueled Shelton’s boom times ushered in its decline. The state’s logging industry sagged in recent decades, burdened with tighter regulation and shifting market dynamics. Two lumber mills shut down in
Shelton during the past two years, laying off 500 workers.
A California company has taken over the old Simpson plant with plans for a stud mill. But the loss of the city’s legacy employers was deeply felt, said Lynn Longan, who leads the county’s economic development council.
“That’s really how Mason County came about, was around the timber industry,” Longan said.
She and fellow business boosters hope a cadre of new enterprises — from skydiving tour operators to tech firms — will help fill the void left by logging. They see marijuana as one piece of the puzzle.
“We have to have a diverse economy,” Longan said, “and marijuana is a big part of that diversity.”
Even as civic leaders look to diversify, wood remains engrained in the culture of Shelton, a city of 10,000. Logging trucks still idle on the waterfront. Forklifts clatter between stacks of lumber in the mill yards along the shore. A breeze wafting off Oakland Bay carries the sharp odor of bark into downtown.
On the first Saturday in June, the Forest Festival parade streamed down Railroad Avenue as it has for the past 73 years. A 20-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan proudly straddled one float.
“That last frontier spirit is still resonant here,” Mayor Gary Cronce said. “Everyone has a desire for Shelton to continue to grow, but everyone wants Shelton to continue to have its character.”
A new renewable
The only sign of Black Diamond Biotech’s arrival on the waterfront was a fresh layer of gray siding on the old Rayonier laboratory. Inside the 70,000-square-foot complex, crews have installed a host of space-age technologies all aimed at growing high quality marijuana as efficiently as possible.
A facility that developed cutting-edge uses for wood will soon churn out top-shelf weed.
“We’d like to be able to produce a very consistent product constantly,” Lange said, standing in one of the building’s eight cavernous cultivation rooms.
To accomplish that goal, Black Diamond will cultivate its cannabis in aeroponic trays beneath banks of LED lights. The plants’ pale roots will dangle in air, nourished by a mist dispensed from computer-controlled nozzles.
Ultraviolet emitters and ozone generators will keep the environment sterile without the need for pesticides. A glycol cooling system and pressurized atmosphere inside the cultivation rooms ensure no contaminated air flows in.
On a lower level of the complex, lab workers will clone plants and genetically sequence strains. A processing wing has the capability of drying 1,500 pounds of marijuana flower weekly.
With millions of dollars on the line, Black Diamond Biotech will not operate like the stereotypical garage grow manned by aging hippies. Lange, who designed the facility, studied bioengineering, neurobiology and genetics at the University of Iowa. His employees will be highly trained and command salaries well above average for Shelton.
“It’s a good job in this area,” Lange said. “To get people who are happy to be here, want to be here, get paid well and want to advance this industry — that’s what we’re focused on.”
Nobody can say for sure how many people have gone to work for marijuana businesses in Mason County — marijuana employment isn’t specifically tracked by the government. Several industry professionals pegged the number in the low hundreds.
A medium-sized grow like Toucan Farms employs six full-time workers, but brings on more help during harvests, when cannabis plants are picked, cured and trimmed.
“We’ve provided many jobs,” Steven Fuhr said.
The economic effect of marijuana businesses opening ripples well beyond direct employment. Growers hire carpenters, heating and cooling contractors, plumbers, security systems specialists and armies of electricians to outfit their high-tech facilities and keep them humming day-and-night. They buy supplies at the Pro-Build hardware in downtown Shelton and eat at local diners.
Lange said Black Diamond has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars locally, and they’re just getting started.
“We’re going to bring in tens of millions in revenue,” Lange said. “Millions of dollars in payroll going out, dozens of direct jobs, hundreds of indirect jobs.”
Of all the Shelton residents indirectly employed by the marijuana industry, Lonita Larson may be the least likely.
Larson runs a sewing shop on First Street, where she was recently swamped with orders for prom dresses and wedding gowns.
The seamstress said she supported marijuana legalization, figuring pot was a less damaging drug than alcohol or opiates, but she doesn’t mess around with it herself.
“I don’t do any of that stuff,” Larson said, taking a break from sewing. “Never liked it. Couldn’t stand the smell.”
Which made it all the more strange when Steve Fuhr jangled through the door of her dress shop one day and presented Larson with a small mesh bag. The bag, she learned, was used to hold marijuana plant material as its pressed to extract rosin — a concentrated cannabis product. Fuhr wanted to know if Larson could manufacture the bags for his processing facility.
The seamstress took a tour of Toucan Farms (eye-opening, but not her scene, she recalled) and they struck a deal. Larson and her business partner now produce all of Toucan’s rosin bags.
“We’ve got plenty of work, but this is a good thing,” she said. “It could become a big part of our business, there are so many growers out there.”
A cautious reception
Like Larson, many Shelton residents hold conflicting views on the industry taking root in their backyard.
A few blocks from Larson’s dress shop, Mary Pauley tends a tiny antiques shop brimming with treasures salvaged from attics and barns. Pauley grew up in Shelton and her father worked as a chemist at the Rayonier laboratory where Black Diamond is setting up its grow. The arrival of marijuana businesses in her hometown makes Pauley uncomfortable.
“I’ve never felt good about it,” she said. “I’ve just seen it ruin so many families.”
The shopkeeper said she likes the idea of medicinal cannabis but sees recreational marijuana as a pathway to chronic drug use. The economic benefit isn’t worth it in her mind.
“We do need jobs, but we need better jobs,” Pauley said. “We don’t need more drugs.”
Farther east on Railroad Avenue, Mayor Cronce can often be found behind the counter of his jewelry store.
The 65-year-old describes himself as a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization for personal reasons. He looks back on his pot-smoking, guitar-playing days in the 1960s as a particularly unproductive period of his life, and wants to keep the drug out of the hands of today’s youth.
But even Cronce joined fellow city commissioners last year in voting to relax land use regulations downtown and let in marijuana producers like Black Diamond. His motivation was simple.
“We’re in a recession,” Cronce said. “We needed money."
County Commissioner Randy Neatherlin wrestled with his own misgivings about marijuana before deciding to support looser regulation for producers. He knew illegal marijuana operations were proliferating in the county long before legalization and he welcomed a more tightly-controlled system.
But Neatherlin was worried about marijuana businesses opening close to schools and daycares, and balked at the small amount of tax money that would filter back to the local level.
Now that marijuana farms are entrenched across his district, Neatherlin is less worried about their impact and more enthusiastic about his out-of-work neighbors finding employment. When Neatherlin toured a growing operation for the first time, he realized he knew most of the people working there.
“It’s been very good to my county,” he concluded. “All I can do is say ‘thank you.’”