PINE BLUFF — Many in Jefferson County remain surprised after last week's announcement that a major medical marijuana-growing facility was pulling out of Pine Bluff in favor of Jackson County.
The exact reason remains unclear, but there are accusations on several sides.
The group Natural State Wellness Enterprises, partially owned by Hank Wilkins V, son of Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, applied for and was awarded a medical marijuana growing license by the state last week that could either be used in Jackson or Jefferson counties but not both.
They were the only one of the five license-award-winning entities, including another in Jefferson County, Natural State Medicinals, that applied for a two-county choice. A group spokesman told the Pine Bluff Commercial last week that the investors were enthusiastic about locating their operation in Pine Bluff and were looking forward to helping grow the local economy.
But not anymore.
Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, of McDaniel, Richardson, and Calhoun, PLLC and 1.04 percent stakeholder of Natural State Wellness, said that the decision being changed in the last hour should not reflect on the Jefferson County Economic Development Alliance, whose members had worked to lure the company to this area.
“Caleb McMahon (director of economic development for Jefferson County) and the (Jefferson County Economic Development) Alliance were very professional and did an amazing job,” said McDaniel, who has also represented Wilkins IV in court proceedings.
“Leaders of both counties want the investment and jobs that will come with this facility. Until Wednesday, we fully believed that we would locate in Jefferson County. However, Jon Chadwell (an economic developer with Jackson County) and the leaders of Jackson County simply never gave up.
“This was a complicated business decision based on many factors that were more than just dollars and cents. We are grateful to the leadership of both counties. We are now eager to get to work on construction.”
Scott Hardin, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, said that there was no official notification that Natural State Wellness would be established in either county until the team arrived to pay the $100,000 license fee and the $500,000 performance bond for Jackson County.
“There were no indications as to why Jackson County was chosen over Jefferson County,” Hardin said.
Jefferson County Election Commission Secretary Stuart “Stu” Soffer said that he is the one being blamed by McMahon and others for Natural State Wellness’ decision to relocate to Jackson County.
Soffer, who spoke mostly off the record, has been a vocal critic of the project because it was to be located on land the tax-funded Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County sold to Natural State Wellness for the cultivation project near the Pines Mall off Interstate 530.
Simmons Bank Chairman and CEO George Makris, who also chairs the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County, commonly known as the “Tax Board,” told the Commercial that Natural State Wellness decided not to locate in Jefferson County after all creates an image that Pine Bluff and the county aren’t business-friendly.
“It’s just very disappointing,” he said.
Bart Calhoun of McDaniel, Richardson and Calhoun, is the attorney, government relations liaison, and an investor for Natural State Wellness. He said last week after Natural State announced plans to locate in Pine Bluff that “We are very excited to be in Jefferson County. People put a lot of trust in us and we hope to fulfill the patients’ medical needs and look forward to serving the county.”
Calhoun said that the group had applied for licenses in two counties because they didn’t know at the time where the other approved facilities would be located, and Jackson and Jefferson counties are both Tier 4 counties.
Each county in Arkansas is graded by tiers implemented by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which ranks all 75 counties into four divisions on the basis of economic prosperity. Tier 1 counties are the most prosperous, while Tier 4 counties are the least prosperous.
To the northeast in Jackson County, officials are elated at Natural State Wellness’ decision to move there. It now gives their county two medical marijuana growing operations.
“We are excited for new business in Jackson County,” said Jon Chadwell, Economic Development Commission for the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. “We know what has been reported in the news, but our policy states that we will leave it up to the company to address the issue.”
Natural State Medicinals, whose CEO is Joseph C. Courtwright, is still planning to locate on Gravel Pit Road near exit 27 on Interstate 530.