They met in a school cafeteria decorated with a string of flags from around the world and posters about eating fresh vegetables.
On the agenda: a giant marijuana growing operation.
Not that long ago, this kind of topic would have been unheard of in a public meeting, much less one in a school, as evidenced by a street sign that declares Southside Elementary School a drug-free zone.
But on a Tuesday evening last month some 75 people gathered at the elementary school to listen to a pitch from a new company that wants to build a 1.25 million-square-foot cannabis complex in the South Buffalo neighborhood. Flora Buffalo has proposed a $200 million high-tech campus that it says would employ 500 to 1,000 people. And the company has enlisted prominent supporters, such as former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, as well as those in health care, higher education and human services fields.
Flora Buffalo is trying to position itself to be a major player in the cannabis industry, betting that it is a matter of when – not if – the adult use of marijuana will become legal.
"We will be prepared to go when it's time to go," said Dasheeda Dawson, who was recently named president of Flora Buffalo.
With Gov. Andrew Cuomo's support and Democrats controlling both the Assembly and Senate, New York State seems poised to allow the recreational use of marijuana, joining 10 other states that have done so. The state's approval of recreational marijuana did not come as part of a state budget deal, but could come later in the legislative session.
In the meantime, Flora Buffalo is laying the groundwork, Dawson said.
Flora has already gained approval by the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. to buy 47 acres at Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park, with plans to complete the $1.9 million purchase in a month or two.
Now, its focus has been on selling the community on cannabis.
Flora Buffalo is working with the city to craft a community benefits plan, which would include local hiring, job training through a proposed partnership with SUNY Erie, a “campus incubator” to help local entrepreneurs get into the legal cannabis business and a $3 million nonprofit that would provide funding to organizations in Buffalo's disadvantaged communities.
Joining Dawson at the public meeting were Dr. Doug Scheidt, SUNY Erie Community College's new provost, and Ken Colon, the workforce program coordinator at the Buffalo Urban League. They talked of working with Flora Buffalo to provide training and access to jobs in the cannabis field.
"It's a really fascinating time," Scheidt said.
What is Flora Buffalo?
Flora-California Prime and developer Zephyr Partners want to build the cannabis complex on the former site of Hanna Furnace in the Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park. Plans include 850,000 square feet of greenhouse space to grow marijuana. The complex would also include manufacturing facilities to process cannabis, extract oils and produce products from lotions and shampoos to food and beverages – and yes, traditional joints.
The rest of the facility would include space for support and headquarters for the Buffalo subsidiary, an educational program with SUNY Erie, medical research with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and an incubator for new cannabis-related businesses.
Flora-California Prime was founded by Jim Cavacco, who has a background in health and wellness products, and Brad Termini, a real estate developer from Buffalo (and son of Buffalo developer Rocco Termini) who lives in the San Diego area. The company is based in Solana Beach in Southern California.
Over the last four years, Termini said, the company has become one of the largest cannabis-related license holders in California, where voters approved adult use of cannabis in November 2016. Until recently, most of the company's activity was focused in real estate investment and investing in other brands.
Now, it's getting ready to open its own growing operation in California – a 400,000 square foot “state-of-the-art, fully integrated cannabis factory” in Greenfield, a farming community in the Salinas Valley, Termini said. The first crop of cannabis at Greenfield is set to be planted in the next few weeks.
Termini has watched closely as momentum has built for legalization in New York.
After Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act in 2014, legalizing the medical use of marijuana, the state issued just 10 licenses for companies to grow, process and sell cannabis products under tightly controlled regulations.
Those companies also want to get in on the recreational use market, which is expected to be much larger.
"I would argue that the existing market isn't in a position to meet the demands of a recreational demand," Termini said. "People are going to have to scale up. There needs to be significantly more infrastructure than what's in place now."
Put in charge
Dawson, who was named president of Flora Buffalo last week, has built a career on cannabis.
She’s the founder and president of MJM Strategy, described on the firm’s website as “the cannabis industry’s first minority-led, digital-focused strategy and management consulting firm.”
A former Target and Victoria's Secret executive who grew up in Brooklyn, Dawson has a blog called theweedhead.com. Her Twitter handle: @thecannabisceo. She’s written a workbook titled “How to Succeed in the Green Rush.”
“It’s an incredible chance to shepherd this project through its many phases, and that starts with obtaining a license,” Dawson said.
Flora-California Prime originally brought her in as a strategic adviser.
Dawson wants to make sure people of color are included in the cannabis industry boom, especially those who were convicted of marijuana crimes in past decades. She said she wants to include job training and entrepreneurial opportunities in Flora Buffalo's plan, which would also include a $3 million endowment to education and social justice programs.
"We want to reinvest and support the organizations that are on the ground," she said.
Roswell Park's interest
People have heard it before – marijuana can help cancer patients.
The problem, however, is that it hasn’t been scientifically studied, said Dr. Candace S. Johnson, the president and CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center.
“I think cancer patients have been using it for these symptoms for a long time, but not with any scientific basis – really, just anecdotal,” she said.
There's a reason there hasn't been much study. In the past, research institutions risked losing federal funding for even studying marijuana, which the federal government categorizes as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD.
Also, it’s tricky to do a clinical trial because the formulation and potency varies from one batch of cannabis to another, she said.
With legalization in New York on the horizon, Roswell Park is interested in studying the effects of cannabis on a cancer patient, Johnson said.
“Our whole goal is to try to provide our patients with the best information about the effects of cannabis,” she said.
Johnson appears in a promotional video for “Flora Buffalo” posted on its website, expressing interest in researching cannabis and cancer.
Roswell Park doesn’t have a formal agreement with Flora Buffalo and may even consider partnering with multiple cannabis producers, Johnson told The Buffalo News.
But a large-scale producer like what Flora Buffalo proposes to become could potentially provide the kind of consistent product appropriate for a clinical trial.
“We were asked if we were interested in participating in and doing a clinical trial, and we said yes,” Johnson said. “We are interested because of cannabis’ potential positive effects on a cancer patient.”
A college view
Dan Hocoy, the president of SUNY Erie Community College, got a phone call last fall from Brad Termini, who asked if he would be interested in having the college provide classes and training in the cannabis industry.
For Hocoy, the idea made sense.
If the state legalizes recreational marijuana, SUNY Erie will create courses related to growing cannabis and getting into the business of cannabis.
The classes, in partnership with Flora Buffalo, would augment existing programs such as plant biology and business. Some would be taught at the downtown campus. Flora Buffalo has agreed to set aside space for hands-on training at its facilities.
Hocoy believes the programs would draw students.
“They’re aware of what’s going on nationally,” Hocoy said. “They want to be part of that change here. I really see the college as a major engine of social and economic development, and this falls right in the middle of that.”
Helping the community
L. Nathan Hare, chief of the Community Action Organization, one of the area's biggest social services providers, appears in the promotional video for Flora Buffalo.
He promotes the idea that Flora Buffalo can provide jobs to Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the people that had their potential economies destroyed because they were caught involved with the cannabis trade, if those people wound up becoming the predominant workers, and the new managers, and the new owners of a brand-new industry?” he asked in the video.
Hare, whose leadership of CAO has been criticized by former board members who attempted to fire him, declined comment for this article.
Dawson said there are no specific plans for Flora Buffalo to work with Hare or the CAO.
“Nate has been instrumental as a thought leader,” she said.
A former mayor's voice
The Flora promotional video begins with soaring view of a snow-covered downtown Buffalo. Wistful piano music plays.
Then comes the earnest voice: “The people of Buffalo are resilient. They are people who work and believe in family, country and community.”
The voice belongs to Masiello, now a lobbyist whose firm was hired by Flora Buffalo.
Masiello also declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman said his firm – Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese and Associates – generally doesn’t give interviews about their clients.
The former mayor’s comments on the video show his polished pitch for the company.
“Flora wants to do something that's different, unique here," he said. "It wants to be a holistic industry. They're putting their money where their mouth is.
"They are going to invest in the community-based organizations. That model isn’t replicated anywhere else," he says. "This gives all of Buffalo an opportunity and that makes me very excited about our future.”