Harrisburg City Council took a lengthy look on Tuesday night at a plan to build a medical marijuana dispensary in the heart of Allison Hill.
Over the course of two hours, council members peppered officials with Coopersburg-based WH RE LLC with questions regarding issues as varied as community outreach, tax abatement and job opportunities.
“Why do you choose to locate in the Harrisburg area and why in an urban area?” asked council President Wanda Williams.
CEO Peter Bio responded that his company selected Harrisburg because of the population density and because, when they applied, no other dispensary was located in the city limits.
“I think the goal of DOH (PA Department of Health) is to have dispensaries located throughout the state,” he said.
Last December, the department awarded two dispensary licenses in Harrisburg: one to Local Dispensaries, a related company to WH RE LLC, and another to Harvest of South Central PA, which plans to open in the former Camp Curtin BBQ building on N. 6th Street.
WH RE LLC wants to build a 3,000-square-foot dispensary at 137 S. 17th St., directly across the street from Hamilton Health Center.
Council must approve the facility’s land use plan before the company can break ground, which it expects to do in late spring, followed by a four-month construction period. The project already has received the approval of the city’s Planning Commission.
Several council members questioned the company’s decision to locate in the heart of South Allison Hill.
“A perception out there is that, in five to 10 years, marijuana will get legalized and, because this is a low income community, there will be customers there,” said Councilman Dave Madsen.
In response, Bio stated that a dispensary is a medical facility licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health, that the average patient is in their mid-60s and that there’s no connection between medical cannabis and the possible legalization of recreational marijuana.
He said the site was selected for a number of attributes, including access to public transportation, proximity to I-83, access to a potential patient population and enough empty land to build a retail store with parking.
Repeatedly, council members and several residents criticized the company for a perceived lack of public outreach in the area around the proposed dispensary.
“I think outreach needs to be done,” said council member Ausha Green.
In the public comment period, Jeannine Peterson, CEO of Hamilton Health, said that she was surprised to learn that the company scored high in its state Department of Health application for community outreach.
“My understanding is that this organization received a high score for community involvement,” she said. “They have not had community involvement until recently, when they came up to City Council review. I want to know what community involvement occurred.”
Bio admitted that the company has not done extensive outreach on a house-by-house basis, but pledged that he would accelerate that effort. He also said that his company would employ as many as 30 people with 24 months, including many Harrisburg residents.
Bio also said that he had no intention to apply for a tax abatement. The city has a property tax abatement program for new construction, if a builder meets certain conditions.
At the meeting, the company also came under criticism for choosing a location within 1,000 feet of two daycare centers, for which they had to receive a waiver from the state.
“You have to convince us that this is good thing for our community,” said Shirley Blanton, president of the South Allison Hill Homeowners and Residents Association. “Everything that we’ve done, we’ve done for the benefit of our community, and I’m not sure this is a good idea for us.”
One Harrisburg resident, Darryl Hickey, spoke strongly in favor of the dispensary.
“You’re welcome here,” he said. “Bring it in. Bring it all in.”
In the end, council decided to hold another work session hearing on the issue once the developer had done more extensive community outreach. This likely will delay a vote on the company’s land development plan into December.