FL: For Struggling Gadsden County, Medical Marijuana And Trulieve ‘May Be Our Future’

Photo Credit: Hali Tauxe

Carrie West lives in an old weathered cottage facing the gunmetal gray buildings wrapped in a chain-link fence.

West steps out from a creaking screen door and onto a porch no bigger than a beach towel. The neighborhood is still except for vehicles driving in and out of the property guarded like Fort Knox.

For months the 28-year-old and her family could hear and see something on the horizon at what used to be Higdon Furniture Company — a longtime family-owned manufacturing plant that fell prey to the Great Recession, leaving locals desperate to find jobs elsewhere.

Now Trulieve owns the land. The medical marijuana company is pouring millions into buildings and renovating eyesores in Gadsden County while creating an empire of dispensaries in every corner of the state. Trulieve’s presence is the rural county’s debut into the modern age of medical marijuana.

West supports the controversial industry and its presence in Gadsden County, knowing the product has helped people she loves. She’s also unemployed and hopes she could work at Trulieve.

“I’d be to work every day and never late,” she laughed, considering how close she lives to one facility.

Last month, Florida surpassed the 100,000-patient milestone, with only Arizona, California and Michigan having more medical marijuana patients. Trulieve, one of the state’s original licensed medical marijuana providers, opened Florida’s first dispensary in Tallahassee in July 2016. It’s now serving more than half of the state’s patients through its dispensaries or delivery services.

Medical marijuana also represents big business for one of the poorest counties in the state. By July, Trulieve aims to add roughly 140  to its staff of 287 employees in Gadsden County.

It’s on track to becoming the county’s biggest private employer.

“Gadsden County has a long history of being in the shade of the Capitol,” said David Gardner, executive director for the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce.

“Medical marijuana may be Gadsden County’s future.”

Pressures of poverty

In downtown Quincy, the neoclassical courthouse anchors a patchwork of open and shuttered businesses.

The sleepy town of 7,680 residents appears still wounded by the recession. Some windows are boarded up, punched in or dull with twisted blinds that fail to keep out the sun. Yet some businesses are bustling along the main strip, including popular eating spots like AJ’s Chicken & Things and Damfino’s Cafe & Market.

Locals cling to area companies, mostly manufacturers, who employ hundreds of residents. Semi’s hauling timber and logs for Coastal Plywood barrel through downtown. The parking lot at SuperValu — a grocery provider serving a network of more than 3,000 owned, franchised and affiliated stores nationwide — overflows with employee cars.

But far too many residents are barely making a living.

Gadsden County desperately hopes to break free from the pinch of a 20.6 percent poverty rate affecting one in five residents and one in three children. The Florida Chamber of Commerce reports that only half of Gadsden County high schoolers graduate.

The county’s median income is just over $38,500, according to census data, and more than half of its residents are black.

Its economy was built on shade tobacco, which once provided a living in one way or another for 80 percent of residents. Other manufacturing businesses moved in, planted roots and created new opportunities.

However, the last 10 years tested the county’s financial grit when three major employers succumbed to the recession.

Higdon Furniture could no longer compete with cheaper overseas sales, Gardner said. Quincy Joist, a steel truss manufacturer, was acquired by a Canadian company that later decided to close the Quincy location. The Printing House had been in business for more than 30 years publishing magazines like “Homes & Land” before it closed.

“We tried to do whatever we could do,” Gardner said. “The recession was tough. It was brutal for rural America, and rural America has had a slower comeback for the most part.”

Economic winds are shifting now with expanding businesses and plans for public infrastructure. Local officials say they’re trying to cultivate a more business-friendly community where companies can acquire land and operate at a cheaper cost compared to Tallahassee.

Photo Credit: Hali Tauxe

Marshellia Washington, a Quincy resident who co-owns Monroe’s Oyster Bar downtown, said she’s heard rumblings of Trulieve.

Taking a quick break from her lounge, Washington said the small-town culture in Gadsden County means job seekers must know someone to get a foot in the door. She’s encouraged by what Trulieve could mean for residents, especially those struggling to get by.

“It’s needed, it’s definitely needed,” she said. “Any type of improvement to Gadsden County is a plus.”

‘Hungry for jobs’

This isn’t the first time Gadsden County’s rolled out the welcome mat for controversial industries promising jobs. In December 2011, Creek Entertainment Gretna introduced barrel racing to the county and opened a card room in Gretna, 27 miles west of Tallahassee. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the gambling company’s attempt to add slots into the operation, but the county keeps fighting for a piece of the lucrative gaming industry.

Quincy City Commissioner Andy Gay said the medical marijuana industry “came out of nowhere for us.”

The cash-only business acquired and transformed properties riddled with code enforcement violations. Despite whispers from a few residents who opposed the medical marijuana operations in their hometown, Gay said it was a welcome change.

“We’re hungry for jobs and any type of industry that can come into our county and provide jobs for our citizens,” he said. “I think this community is fully embracing Trulieve.”