David and Goliath battle brewing over clouted company’s bid to set up a weed shop inside old Rainforest Cafe

“The neighborhood has just gone to pot,” said Robert Brown, who has questioned the legality of the proposal and has organized neighbors who feel another dispensary could tank property values and further drive up crime.

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The building located at 605 N. Clark St. is the former home of The Rainforest Cafe. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The Rainforest Cafe, at 605 N. Clark St., has been empty since August 2020. Two cannabis firms are seeking city zoning approval to open a dispensary at the site on Nov. 18, 2022.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Three days after weed’s high holiday of April 20, Robert Brown spotted a sign posted outside the shuttered Rainforest Cafe steps from his River North home.

The advisory stated only that a pair of companies were looking to set up shop in the space, still adorned with the massive frog and mushrooms left behind by the last tenant. 

Curious about the posting, Brown asked a passerby.

“We’re going to have another pot dispensary,” Brown recalled the person saying, clearly referring to the growing number of marijuana shops in the area.

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Brown vowed.

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Palatine-based PTS has teamed with a social equity firm in a bid to open a cannabis dispensary at the site of the old Rainforest Cafe, 605 N. Clark St.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

He has since become a squeaky wheel, raising questions about the legality of the plan and organizing neighbors who feel another dispensary could tank property values and further drive up crime in the affluent neighborhood close to the Loop. “The neighborhood has just gone to pot,” he said.

A decisive zoning hearing is set for Friday, setting up a David and Goliath fight with Brown going against a clouted pot firm hoping to open a dispensary at 605 N. Clark St. 

Brown said he will argue that the plan is fraught with issues and would set a dangerous precedent for future marijuana businesses.

The company behind the proposal, Progressive Treatment Solutions, ran into problems even before Brown got involved.

They had to scuttle an earlier plan to move an existing dispensary into the building, conceding it was illegal, shortly after the Sun-Times reported on the issue last April.

Under state law, a dispensary can’t open within 1,500 feet of an existing pot shop unless it’s owned by a so-called social equity applicant, a designation created to bolster minority ownership.

At least four weed stores have already opened in that area, and PTS didn’t fit the bill as a social equity firm.

So the Palatine-based company went back to the drawing board, teaming with a social equity firm called Bio-Pharm that scored a conditional license in a state-run lottery. 

But Brown successfully won a delay to the plans in August when the companies sought a special use permit from the zoning board. An economic disclosure form for the building owner included information about PTS, not the owner.

Another paperwork issue delayed the next scheduled hearing on Oct. 21: Zoning Administrator Patrick Murphy had listed PTS as the sole applicant in recommending approval of the site.

Brown maintains that the joint venture flies in the face of the law establishing the social equity program because PTS doesn’t hold the dispensary license. 

Under a management agreement, PTS will operate a Consume brand dispensary at the site using the license held by Bio-Pharm. Such agreements were only allowed by state rules that were revised in August — four months after the joint application to the zoning board.

“I think it’s a classic case of trying to not follow the rules and trying to be as sneaky as you can,” he said.

The companies have pushed back hard on some of Brown’s key claims, even objecting to the admittance of a lengthy PowerPoint presentation he plans to use during his testimony.

“It contains misstatements, outright falsehoods, outdated information and forms, and irrelevant and hearsay statements, many of which don’t even pertain to this matter,” attorney Mara Georges, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s longtime corporation counsel, wrote to city officials on Nov. 14.

During a contentious community meeting, Bio-Pharm’s chief operating officer Kevin Munroe explained how the company qualified: His father, Michael F. Munroe Jr., had been arrested for weed in the 1970s.

The elder Munroe is Bio-Pharm’s majority owner and the chief executive of Pickens-Kane, which touts itself as “the largest commercial relocation company.” Both he and his son are white.

PTS’ newly installed CEO Terry Peterson is Black and has emerged as the face of the company, which has 11 dispensaries spread across three states and a cultivation center in Illinois. 

Peterson also served in the Daley administration and was the 17th Ward alderperson.

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The new CEO of cannabis firm Progressive Treatment Solutions is former CTA Board Chairman Terry Peterson (right), seen here with then-CTA President Dorval Carter (left) during a Sun-Times Editorial Board meeting in 2017.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The company is also led by David Flood, whose politically connected family owns Flood Brothers Disposal, a trash-hauling company that has held lucrative contracts with city agencies. 

Spokesman Rob Nash said the companies have engaged stakeholders and altered their the plan to provide free parking, an “unprecedented security presence” and “significant design improvements to ensure our retail location will be a benefit to the community.”

“We understand some individual residents are concerned with the establishment of retail cannabis outlets,” he said. “But our track record, and the collective experience of the industry in Illinois, has demonstrated cannabis dispensaries are a net benefit to the communities in which they are located, provided additional security and ‘eyes on the street,’ creating meaningful jobs and career opportunities and producing millions of dollars in tax revenue. 

“PTS-BioPharm will be a great neighbor to River North residents.”

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