Look around today and you’ll see some major changes in this former industrial town of about 4,500 that’s a two-hour drive from Chicago and 20 miles from the beaches of Lake Michigan.
A historic district sits north and west of downtown. The Moose Lodge is still open. and the library, in its historical building, is a place where patrons can still walk in and chat with an archivist.
But now, there are also art and antiques galleries, a craft brewery that opened in an old industrial building with high ceilings and exposed ductwork, and an escape room that’s in the old jail.
Though pieces – buildings and businesses – of Buchanan’s history remain, the city today is a stark contrast to its industrial heyday when Clark Equipment employed more than 2,500 here.
Buchanan is emblematic of many former blue-collar communities across the country that succumbed to the industrial recession decades ago and saved itself by repurposing old factory buildings and embracing a cultural shift that’s focused on catering to a new generation of consumers who spend money on things like artisan drinks and locally sourced food.
And that shift, some say, has made this town a more welcoming place for Michigan’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry.
Before the year is out, five medical pot dispensaries, all within a mile of each other, will join the old and the new businesses dotting the downtown and uptown areas here.
Billy Breen, of New Buffalo, owner of the marijuana dispensary slated to go in where the Bucktown Tap was, said he wanted to locate in downtown Buchanan because of its small size and the chance to work with surrounding merchants.
“In small cities, the synergy is amazing,” Breen said.
The cultural shift
Steve Lecklider, owner of Lehman’s brewery, said he’s chasing the “experience economy” popular with millennials who want to take in something unique. For him that means beers, brandies, ciders, salsas, vinegars and jams made with locally grown ingredients, a popular food trend.
Another sort of experience popular with millennials are escape rooms, where a group of friends solves a puzzle in order to “escape” a room. One just opened at the historical Ross-Sanders building on Front Street. Owner Matt Herm said locating in Buchanan wasn’t his first thought, but the local Chamber of Commerce proposed a good deal to use the building, so he gave it a try.
Herm thinks Buchanan might be ripe to draw autumn tourism from the water and wineries of the Lake Michigan shore, so he’s eager to see how things go.
The businesses, as well as a few unique furniture and antiques stores, help cultivate the regional tourism and destination retail image that the city and Downtown Development Authority have been gradually developing, City Manager Bill Marx said.
Will the pot shops fit in?
Allowing medical marijuana business at all here generated a lot of debate last year, and permitting them downtown was controversial.
Marx remembers an even split at public meetings among those who spoke for and against the issue.
Some people see a great part of the push to allow medical marijuana as coming not from lifetime residents of Buchanan, but from others who have moved in, many from Chicago. Marx acknowledges the “Chicago influence” of a few downtown business owners and others with Windy City ties who sit on city boards. But he thinks the issue was as much driven by people born and raised in the city as anyone.
The city commission voted to opt into Michigan’s new commercial structure for medical cannabis at least in part to boost the local economy, Marx said.
City commission member Dale Toerne, originally from the Chicago area, has called medical cannabis “a golden opportunity” for the city and a chance to fill vacant storefronts.
Dispensaries, or provisioning centers, are the most controversial of the businesses allowed under Michigan’s new, more liberal, medical marijuana law. They’re the most public face of medical marijuana, although they’re not really open to the public. You have to have a cannabis patient card issued by the state to get in.
Not everyone agrees
The city commission voted to allow dispensaries in the historical downtown, against the advice of the planning commission.
“I’ve heard people say this isn’t the Buchanan where I grew up,” resident and semi-retired teacher Cindy Benson said. “Of course,” she added, pausing, “I don’t know that anyplace is.”
Still, Benson calls the decision to allow dispensaries downtown “foolish.”
She grew up in town and doesn’t like the idea of pot shops near the public library or “cultural centers,” fearing they’ll be a temptation to kids and will attract crime. She thinks dispensaries are better suited for the “fringe” of the city.
Marx said people worry how dispensaries will look and operate, but state and city rules will keep them “boutique and studio-type” businesses.
“They’re not going to have neon signs. They’re not going to have flags,” Marx said. “They’re not going to be on the street corners selling dope to people in a car.”
While Benson thinks downtown is where dispensaries could do the most damage to Buchanan’s small-town image, others think it’s exactly where they could do the most good.
“They’re a viable business that will generate street traffic,” downtown business owner Alan Robandt said.
Robandt moved here from Chicago 12 years ago and poured money into renovating an old downtown building for his furniture and décor store. He said he’s seen a lot of businesses around him come and go over the past decade because it’s hard for a small business to stay in business in a small town.
Maybe ironically two downtown addresses that just five years ago had brand-new businesses — a vintage décor shop and an upscale pub — now could possibly house dispensaries after those enterprises failed.
If it gets state approval, the Tree House Compassion Center is set to open in the old Bucktown Tap site at 259 E. Front St. The Om of Buchanan is working through local and state processes to open a dispensary at 120 E. Front St. in the former Brimfield vintage decor building.
Another possible downtown dispensary under the name Swinhutch is applying for approval to locate at 221 E. Front St., Marx said.
Two more dispensaries are proposed “uptown,” in the commercial corridor along Front Street, east of downtown.
“Having (dispensaries) on the periphery sucks more life out and does nothing to help reurbanize,” Robandt said. “We don’t have people lining up.”
Richard Gault, a former Clark executive and former mayor, said it’s been only in the past decade that he thinks the city has made real strides in its post-Clark recovery.
Gault thinks “The Promise” is the “epitome” of the city’s recovery. The program was started just a couple of years ago and offers K through 12 graduates of the Buchanan school district tuition for college or trade school.
Gault might count the medical marijuana industry as part of the city’s strides in recovery, too. But it’s too soon to tell, he said.
For one thing, he’s afraid it conflicts with the family-friendly nature of The Promise.
“It’s been a good path we’ve been on,” Gault said. “I’m not sure what this fork in the road is going to mean to us.”