ORLEANS — The select board has many roles, but procurement officer is not one of them.
That was made clear, or at least clearer, June 2 as the board designated Seaside Joint Venture and Ember Gardens as the applicants for the town’s two retail marijuana licenses and invited both to negotiate host community agreements. Dune Wellness LLC was selected as the alternate should Seaside or Ember falter.
“I can’t say I’m thrilled with this process,” Select Board Chair Mefford Runyon said. “I can’t say I have a better answer.”
The town received five responses to its solicitation for applicants, which included what Town Administrator John Kelly called “a whole litany of criteria” ranging from overall business plan to community education and prevention programs to experience doing business in Orleans and in Massachusetts. A range of scores, mostly from zero to 10, with a couple from zero to 20, was available for the select board to assign as individuals.
But unlike the usual procurement process conducted by staff, the board was not required to offer the top finisher, as indicated by composite scores, the right to negotiate a host community agreement, according to Kelly. “There’s no requirement in the RFI,” he said. “This is up to the board. The board has a lot of discretion here.”
Select board member Kevin Galligan said he was surprised at the divergence in ratings among board members on several factors. “A number of the criteria did show consistency (among us),” he said. “In a few categories, we’re all over the map.” He suggested the board begin by eliminating the applicant that had gotten the lowest composite score.
The composite overall scores were Ember Gardens (100.8), b\well (99.8), Seaside Joint Venture (97.2), Dune Wellness LLC (96.6), and Strain LLC (80).
“Our decision is whether to try to in some way use the scorecards in our discussions or decide that the scorecards were informative and revealing, but that the process of making decisions will be a separate kind of vote,” Runyon said.
Select board member Andrea Reed moved to eliminate Strain LLC’s proposal from further consideration. “Where we’re really getting stuck,” she said, “is the strength of the other four. They’re so close, and a difference in our rating system is part of that closeness. We’re coming from a bountiful position of four very strong candidates.” The board voted unanimously to eliminate Strain’s application.
“The process was completely unfair,” Strain CEO Priscilla Brown said in a telephone interview Monday. “It was rigged.” (See related story)
At last week’s meeting, Galligan moved to advance Seaside Joint Venture. That drew immediate criticism from select board member Cecil Newcomb. “I think you’re talking about parking issues and traffic,” he said. “I think of all the applicants they’d be the biggest problem. Look at their projections: up to $18 million in year three or four. Take the $96 per purchase average so far in Massachusetts, you’re talking close to 190,000 cars a year in and out of that property, 10 percent off for walkers. Coupled with the transfer station, Agway, all the construction, it’s gonna be a nightmare.”
“We have the ability to require a traffic study of any of these applicants,” Runyon said. “I don’t know if that solves anything.”
“I think among us we have a prejudice toward our local partners who we have worked with for years,” Reed said. “We know the quality of their interaction with people. I’m weighing that. I’m just struggling with Seaside, which is third in terms of our combined average scores, versus the other two candidates. If we could have some discussion of the strength of it that merits a leap frog over the numbers...”
Galligan pointed to the discrepancy in scores assigned by select board members. “Some of us were very generous throughout all the top four,” he said. “Some of us, me included, were very tough. I (gave one) a total score of 61. Another board member, even though they ranked them the lowest, gave them 98.” He noted that on the question of relevant business experience in Orleans, “for a partnership of one individual in a totally different industry (with) no concept of handling cash and security got a 10” from one member, who gave Seaside a 6.
“The local operator and location were my big differentiators,” said Runyon, who was one of three members who put Seaside at the top of the list. The vote to advance that application was 3-2, with Newcomb opposed and Reed voting no for procedural reasons, having preferred a single motion for all three companies that would be moved forward.
“Understanding there is still a lot more work to be done,” Seaside Joint Venture President David Currier wrote in an email, “we are happy to be chosen to do so. There was only one neighbor who expressed concerns about traffic, and he said it was more about how the town uses Lots Hollow as a cut-through to get back and forth to South Orleans. We did hire Ryder & Wilcox, who seem to think it shouldn’t be a problem. We have been in contact with most of our direct neighbors and they haven’t expressed any concerns about our property… We have also put a lot of time into ways we can ease congestion on our part. All in all, I’m confident in our team’s ability to handle any concerns on traffic, and anything else people are concerned about,”
Reed’s nomination of b\well for the second slot did not gain a second and was withdrawn. “I just couldn’t quite accept the idea of having a 62-unit affordable housing complex that attracts young families that close to a retail marijuana dispensary,” Runyon said. “In every other way, I think they were a good applicant.”
In an email, b\well CEO Karen Nash wrote, “We believe the process was not proper and we are exploring our options. b\well is the most qualified candidate and the only candidate with an operating dispensary with a proven track record.”
Galligan proposed advancing Ember Gardens next, saying he “heard them to be responsive” on traffic and parking issues related to their busy Route 6A location. “I honestly felt they had a wonderful business plan,” he said, “an excellent team and a good presentation.” Runyon added that the company “should be asked to do a traffic study” if selected. The vote in favor was unanimous.
“We thank the select board for a diligent and transparent application process and look forward to working together as we navigate the next steps in permitting,” Ember Gardens responded in an email. “We are excited to be one of the chosen companies to bring this new industry to Orleans and look forward to doing things the right way, being respectful neighbors, and active members of the community. We are deep rooted in Massachusetts and in the cannabis industry and are thrilled to move forward in such a beautiful and exciting location.”
Reed moved to offer the alternate position to Dune Wellness, LLC, which was approved unanimously. The company had not responded to a request for comment by press time.
Completing a host community agreement will allow the applicants to move forward in the state approval process with the cannabis control commission. It could be a year before retail marijuana sales begin in Orleans.