Movie houses are closing. Could pot palaces open in their place?
The owner of an old AMC movie house in Springfield hopes to transform the theater into a cannabis co-op housing a dispensary, a greenhouse and a lounge to get high — a model its owner wants to replicate around the country.
A bold plan to convert a shuttered downstate movie house into a den of all things dank is beginning to take shape — and the businessman behind the idea believes it can be replicated nationwide.
If everything falls into place, an old AMC theater at 3025 Lindbergh Blvd. in Springfield will be transformed into a cannabis co-op housing a dispensary, a greenhouse and a lounge to get high.
The first piece of the puzzle is a pot shop operated by Maribis, which is expected to open Saturday. The dispensary — Maribis’ fourth in the state — will occupy the former concession stand and two of the cineplex’s eight theaters.
Dan Linn, general manager of the Summit-based firm, said the idea is ultimately to create a kind of “craft brewery but with cannabis.” Linn said those involved are “leaning on the idea that down the road the regulations will be a little bit relaxed so you can actually have tours of the craft grow.”
Springfield lobbyist Chris Stone said he started developing the concept after launching HCI Alternatives, a pot firm that earned licenses to operate two downstate dispensaries in 2016.
“I don’t know of any co-located operation like this in the country,” said Stone, now a senior adviser to Ascend Wellness Holdings, a Massachusetts-based company that bought out HCI last year following an earlier merger deal.
Shuttered theaters could be a perfect place to house the operation, he said.
“Because the way movie theaters are built — they’re all concrete blocked, they all have really good HVAC and exhausts and they all have really high electrical need because of the old projectors — you have everything that you need,” he added.
Stone is so high on the idea that he’s looking at AMC theaters across the country to see where the company is “liquidating and selling off their assets just because people aren’t necessarily going to as many movies.”
He intends to create a fund to acquire five more AMC theaters in states that don’t currently allow the sale of marijuana in any form. Then he plans to work with local legislators “to help enact cannabis legislation with the idea that ... we hope to get a license.”
“But even if we don’t get licensed, I got a feeling that there’s going to be people that do get licensed that would want to look at these assets,” he said.
At the Springfield site, Stone hopes to ultimately use two of the theaters to set up an on-site consumption lounge and bar, which would be outfitted with “luxury boxes” to look in on flowering plants and a massive “TV wall” to screen movies. For now, those spaces would have to be separated because consumption lounges aren’t currently allowed to serve booze.
“Hopefully in due time we could open up that wall to combine them,” said Stone, who hopes legislation will be passed to change the rules.
Lawmakers labored over a provision in state law that tightly regulates public consumption spaces, but none have opened and only a few have earned local approval. Last year, Stone was instrumental in getting the go-ahead for a planned consumption lounge at a Springfield dispensary now operated by Ascend.
Stone said the four other theaters would be used to grow cannabis, though it’s unclear who will run the operation because the state’s 40 upcoming craft cultivation licenses have been delayed indefinitely along with all the state’s other outstanding pot permits.
Stone said he assisted groups on more than a dozen applications for the new cultivation licenses, though he acknowledged that state law prohibited him from joining more than one of them as an owner. While one of those teams has already expressed interest in growing at the theater, Stone said “it doesn’t matter what cultivation group would go in the back side.”
He hopes a portion of the grow operation can be used to cultivate designated plants for specific customers, an idea he co-opted from the marijuana programs in Oregon and Colorado.
“The people that are buying the product can actually see their product being grown from the time it was a clone all the way to the time that it was harvested,” Stone said of the process, which he believes is in line with the “farm-to-table” philosophy.
Though Maribis is already setting up shop at the theater, the rest of the audacious plan remains in its early phases. Still, both Stone and Linn remained confident.
“It sounds like the city’s on board,” said Linn.