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Welcome to America's First Government-Run Pot Store

Conrad Wilson/OPB

The first government-run recreational marijuana store in the country opened this month in Washington State. Revenues from the pot shop will benefit the small town of North Bonneville, in the Columbia River Gorge.

Community leaders there say their town could really use the cash. The economy in that part of the state has been slow to recover since the timber industry collapsed more than two decades ago.

“There is one gas station. There is one restaurant. There is a golf course. And there is the Bonneville Hot Springs Hotel,” said John Spencer, the former city administrator turned consultant.

With a few exceptions he’s just described most of the town’s economy.

A few years ago the town of about 1,000 people stopped watering parks and other public places to save money. And a few months ago it started turning off streetlights to cut down on its electricity bill.

“The city is on its knees financially,” Spencer said. “They have run negative numbers in the general fund multiple months in a row because they have no retail sector here and in Washington State you’re dependent on a retail sector because of the sales tax. And this store could very well make a town that is otherwise going to fail.”

The store Spencer is talking about is The Cannabis Corner — North Bonneville’s first retail marijuana store. And in fact it’s the first recreational pot shop in the country run by a government.

There are no other shops run by municipalities in Washington. And in Colorado – the only other state where a recreational pot market is up and running – all the retails stores are privately owned, according to the state’s Department of Revenue.

So is it a city-owned pot shop?

“No absolutely not,” Spencer said. “This is a public development authority pot shop. A municipally-operated pot shop.”

He said it’s common for cities to create public development authorities when they want to do something in the private sector, as sort of a municipal corporation. Convention centers are one common example.

“In the headlines everybody wants to say it’s a city-owned pot shop, which I guess I leave that for the lawyers. I guess technically in some level it is,” said North Bonneville Mayor Don Stevens, who embraces the title of “The Marijuana Mayor,” right down to the personalized license plates that read “MJMAYOR”  that he’s ordered for his car.

He said the city pursued the idea of a marijuana store because it gives it more control over how it’s operated.

“Where as if a private person came in and opened a store and it wasn’t working out in the community’s best interest we’d have a really long, ugly path to try and straighten that situation out,” Stevens said.

Under Washington State’s pot law, cities don’t get any revenue from pot taxes. The money goes to the state.

Critics of that model say it’s slowed the industry’s growth. Some cities have implemented moratoriums – in part because they fear they’ll incur costs without getting any of the revenues.

While North Bonneville’s new store will still pay taxes to the state, the pot shop’s profits will go back to into the community by partnering with the city on projects.

“While it can’t just deposit its profit directly into our general fund, (it) can as a separate corporation, help us defray costs with law enforcement contracts, public health and safety programs, any number of things that will ultimately will have a positive effect on our bottom line,” Mayor Stevens said.

Right now, the city runs on seven staffers and annual budget of $1.2 million.

Officials predict The Cannabis Corner will bring in $225,000 in profit this year. They’re hoping for up to half a million dollars next year.

Casey Roeder, the executive director of the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce, said the region’s economy has been slow to rebound after the timber industry collapsed in the early 1990s.

“Tourism is our main industry now,” she said.

By adding reasons for people to visit, Roeder is hoping it will help the community grow.

“Perhaps somebody’s going out to go hiking, they’re going to hike Beacon Rock, they may stop at the cannabis store,” she said. “But they also look at the lifestyle that we have, the beauty that we have, the proximity to the greater Portland area and to the airport, they might bring their business here. And that is just the multiplier of what tourism can do for us.”

As word of North Bonneville’s government-run pot shop spreads and the state’s marijuana industry grows, officials expect more cities may try to get into the business.

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting