By Randy Pierce
Ascend Wellness Holdings LLC, a multi-state operator of cannabis dispensaries, formally opened its newest facility in Fairview Heights on Thursday morning, March 25, with a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by Mayor Mark Kupsky and other city officials.
Located at 114 Commerce Lane in a building formerly occupied by a Babies R Us retail store, Ascend’s second location in southwestern Illinois is a 5100-square-foot structure with state-of-the-art features including a high level of security.
Ascend’s operations exist in four other states (Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Massachusetts) and it has a dispensary in Collinsville that was opened at 1014 Eastport Plaza Drive on January 1, 2020 plus another two in Springfield. There is a total of 12 Ascend retail locations and three properties where its products are cultivated.
Information disseminated by Ascend indicate that the Fairview Heights location, which is readily and easily visible from Interstate 64, created 90 local jobs. It has an online pre-ordering process that includes scheduled pick-up times designed to hold down on gatherings of huge crowds like those which showed up at the Collinsville site soon after it opened. Walk-in customers are also served.
By far the largest of Ascend’s retail locations in Illinois, the Fairview Heights store’s interior allows for social distancing, spacious display of product and an open floor concept designed with acoustics in mind to allow for clear communication. Ascend describes its cannabis offerings as coming in the form of flowers, pre-rolls, vapes and topicals.
Present for the ribbon cutting from the City of Fairview Heights along with Kupsky were City Clerk Karen Kaufhold and Aldermen Pat Baeske and Frank Menn.
“We’re excited to welcome this new business opening in Fairview Heights today,” Kupsky said. “We’re proud to have you as part of our community and look forward to great things from you.”
Jason Berkenstock, director of Ascend’s retail operations in the Midwest, responded by commenting, just before the ribbon was cut, “We’re excited to be here and very grateful for the support from Fairview Heights. It has been incredible to work with you. We truly appreciate the collaboration.”
Ascend’s quest to develop a location in Fairview Heights actually began in late 2019 when its representatives looked at a property on Salem Place, also fronting on the interstate highway, which was the former site of an Ethan Allen furniture store at one time.
After much discussion and deliberation, city officials could not offer any support for the opening of a cannabis dispensary at the Salem Place location because of inadequate parking space so Ascend regrouped and looked elsewhere in town before coming across the former Babies R Us structure.
Christopher Melillo, Ascend Wellness Holdings chief revenue officer, offered his praise to the mayor and city council “for helping make this process go so smoothly.”
He added that Ascend’s approach to its growth of facilities is based on consumer demand for the product it offers, something that has been increased in the United States in the recent past. At the present time, Melillo said further, Ascend will have a sufficient supply of its product to fill all of its customers’ needs.
This location will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. for adult-use recreational customers while also serving those with valid medical cannabis use cards.
Ascend is a welcome addition to the Fairview Heights retail landscape, especially since the municipality which relies very heavily on sales tax revenue for funding its day-to-day operations, has suffered financially as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on shopping and dining in the city.
Kupsky noted a few months ago that along with catching up with lagging payments to the local police pension fund, other income from cannabis tax revenue would be put toward retiring long-term debt with some also going into the city’s general fund for day-to-day operations.
As recently as the evening before the ribbon cutting at the Fairview Heights dispensary, Kupsky drew attention to the benefit to be realized from this business because of how the tax income from it will help the city pay down what it owes for the development of its new recreation complex.
During a presentation to the city’s planning commission on Tuesday, October 13 of last year, representatives of Ascend, seeking approval at that time for a special use permit concerning selling cannabis from the former Babies R Us site, projected a total of $96,000 per month being generated in terms of city tax revenue from this location.
Katrina McGuire, an attorney from the Thompson Coburn law firm of St. Louis, stated at the aforementioned planning commission public hearing that this estimate is based on the volume of sales at Ascend’s other locations to about 6400 customers per week with each average purchase totaling $125.
The projection provided by McGuire additionally mentioned another $96,000 per month in tax revenue for St. Clair County. This would mean $1.15 million for each government entity in a year’s time should these estimates be accurate or possibly more if they fall short.
The city relies heavily on the success of its retail businesses because the municipality collects no real estate tax from local property owners, therefore depending on sales tax receipts administered through the Illinois Department of Revenue to help fund government operations in the community.
The coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the nation has had a more profound impact on Fairview Heights than in other municipalities in the area because it is one of very few cities in the entire state, most of them much smaller such as St. Libory in St. Clair County, with no property tax so it relies more heavily on retail sales tax revenue for the bulk of its operating expenses. In a general sense based on its sales tax structure, the City of Fairview Heights receives roughly two cents from every retail dollar spent at local businesses.
Fairview Heights’ elected officials, including the mayor, have been forced by this dilemma to implement employee furloughs, elimination of some public works projects defined as capital improvements and pulling financial support for two major events, the Midwest Salute to the Arts and the Midwest WingFest, among many other cost-savings actions.