In a stunning reversal that left officials in Pine Bluff "mad to the point of tears, practically," Natural State Wellness Enterprises LLC announced today that it would put its medical marijuana cultivation facility in Jackson County.
Dustin McDaniel, the former Arkansas attorney general and an investor and lobbyist for the company, made the announcement as Natural State Wellness filed its $100,000 license fee and $500,000 bond to build one of five statewide centers for growing medicinal pot.
The move came nearly a week after Natural State Wellness assured Caleb McMahon, economic development director for Jefferson County, that the site would come to the Pine Bluff area. Several sources said a member of the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners, Stu Soffer, had raised a cloud over siting the project in Pine Bluff.
"Leaders of both counties want the investment and jobs that will come with this facility," McDaniel said in a news release from his law firm, McDaniel Richardson & Calhoun PLLC. "Until Wednesday, we fully believed that we would locate in Jefferson County. However, [Jon] Chadwell and the leaders of Jackson County simply never gave up."
Natural State Wellness had the option to choose between Jefferson and Jackson counties because the state Medical Marijuana Commission picked two of its proposals among the top five in the competition for five state cultivation licenses. By law, however, the company can receive only one license. The commission said 95 total proposals were presented.
"This was a complicated business decision based on many factors that were more than just dollars and cents," McDaniel's statement said.
In a telephone conversation Friday afternoon, McDaniel said that both counties had offered similar incentive packages, but he declined to go into details. "They'll be public soon enough," he told Arkansas Business. "I think that we will let the press statement speak for itself, and get on with building our business."
McMahon, who said last week that he had phone and email confirmation that Natural State Wellness had chosen Jefferson County, was clearly distressed when reached by phone Friday morning. "We're damage controlling around here this morning," he said about 10:30.
McMahon said "one individual" had cost Jefferson County the site, but he wouldn't say more. "We're trying to handle this in a very specific way. It has everybody on my team and everyone involved mad to the point of tears, practically."
Natural State Wellness has an investor, Hank Wilkins V, who is the son of Jefferson County Judge Hank Wilkins. Soffer, the elections commissioner, has been at odds with the county judge and said Friday afternoon that he was the "one individual" McMahon had mentioned.
"People come to me because they know I don't mind asking ethical questions," Soffer said in a conversation that was mostly off the record. "That is what open government is all about. Questions were asked, and they were answered to my satisfaction as of yesterday, and the matter was dropped."
Soffer's questions centered on land the tax-funded Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County bought for the cultivation project near the Pines Mall off Interstate 530. He said correspondence with Jefferson County officials had allayed some concerns about the land deal, but he wondered about the "kneejerk reaction" that resulted in the enterprise locating in Jackson County.
McDaniel refused to speak on the record about Soffer, but he didn't deny reports, notably in the Arkansas Times, about a toxic political atmosphere that pushed the project toward Jackson County.
McMahon said he would be meeting Friday afternoon with other economic officials and the president of the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County, George Makris of Simmons Bank.
Jon Chadwell, the economic development director for Jackson County, said Friday morning that he could offer only a prepared statement.
"That's all I'm willing to make right now," he told Arkansas Business by phone. "Our policy is to let companies make their own statements about their operations in Jackson County. We are aware of what's been reported, but refer all other questions to the company."
The decision means that Jackson County, rather than Jefferson, will have two cultivation facilities. Delta Medical Cannabis, incorporated by Jason Willet, won one spot in the license competition with a proposal for a site in Newport, the Jackson County seat. Jefferson County still has one cultivation center coming, Natural State Medicinals, which lists its incorporator as Jason Courtright.
The other two sites selected by the state panel are Bold Team LLC, incorporated by Danny Brown, which will locate in Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) and Osage Creek Cultivation, incorporated by Jay Trulove, which is headed for Carroll County.
All five companies have paid their fees to be licensed, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration. The Medical Marijuana Commission is expected to formally issue the licenses Wednesday.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)