Antonio Jimenez Jr. stood in the shadow of the old, red-brick mill on Ladd Avenue in Northampton on Tuesday. For him, it was a long journey to get there.
Jimenez, 23, grew up in Springfield and was “heavy in the streets.” In years past, it was difficult for him to get a job and make ends meet. In his words, he tried to make it on his own and “go up in life,” but it didn’t work out.
Roughly six month ago, he reached out for help from the nonprofit Roca, an organization that works with young people like Jimenez who have grown up at the center of violence, have experienced trauma and, without direct intervention, are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
So far, Jimenez’s experiences in the organization have been enlightening, helping him change his situation for the better and look at life in a different way. He’s on a path to jumpstart a career now. The only way he could do that was through Roca, he noted.
“I recommend it for a lot of kids that don’t have anything in life that they look forward to,” Jimenez said. “It’s all about accepting your reality, and a lot of kids my age don’t notice that until it’s too late. So, if I could get a message across to the youth, I want them to not give up on life, and then just leave the streets alone, because it doesn’t lead to anything but jail and death.”
In the months ahead, Jimenez will be paid to help demolish the inside of the historic 19th-century mill at 20 Ladd Ave. that for decades housed gun manufacturer Yankee Hill Machine. The company produced assault weapons, silencers and other gun accessories at the building before moving to a bigger facility in Easthampton to expand its operations.
Next year, though, the face of the building will change drastically, as the future occupants of the centuries-old mill in Florence will be producing an entirely different product: cannabis.
Community Growth Partners (CGP), a women- and minority-owned cannabis company, broke ground at 20 Ladd Ave. on Tuesday. In six to nine months, the old mill will go from producing “bullets to bud,” according to Charlotte Hanna, the CEO and founder of Community Growth Partners.
“By 2022, we should have flower on the market,” Hanna said while walking through the approximately 23,000-square-foot mill.
The building still holds remnants of Yankee Hill Machine: a dirty gun shell lodged in the floor, shelves set up for firearm accessories and a metal slab with dents in it from fired-off bullets that leans against one of the attic’s walls.
A conveyer belt leads from the ground floor of the building to the unlit basement, where Hanna said cannabis will be cultivated in the years ahead.
“It’s amazing. It’s been two years in the making, so I got a little bit teary-eyed just looking around and seeing all the people around me here to show support,” Hanna told MassLive after the groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday afternoon. “These are the same people that have been by my side, hanging in there for a couple of years now as I have been working on raising the money to do the build, getting licensed by the state, which is a complicated process, and then designing the building in a way so that it has the least impact in terms of carbon footprint.”
“It’s taken a while to get to this point today, so I got a little bit emotional, but it’s just really nice,” she added.
Improving equity and bridging the economic divide in the cannabis industry is a top priority for Hanna, who runs the Rebelle dispensary in Great Barrington as well.
Before Massachusetts started requiring positive impact plans as part of the recreational cannabis licensing process, Hanna knew she wanted her company to have a beneficial, lasting effect on people’s lives. So, she did some research in Massachusetts and found Roca would be the “perfect partner” to help achieve her goal.
“They’re already working in these same communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, so I couldn’t do what we do without them,” Hanna said. “They are effectively our talent pipeline.”
Since 2018, CGP has partnered with Roca to create a pathway for young adults enrolled in the organization to get employment and an education about how cannabis industry works. Hanna’s future cultivation site in Northampton will be providing 50 jobs, many of which will go to those involved at Roca, including Jimenez.
“They’re critical to us and our social purpose as a company,” Hanna noted.
The individuals from Roca who already work at Hanna’s store in Great Barrington are not only getting paid, though. They’re also getting equity in her company and receiving training in the industry. She hopes for the same at the Northampton facility.
After helping gut the inside of the old mill, Jimenez said he wants to look for an opportunity to work at the cultivation site.
“I do like the experience and all that stuff that comes behind it,” he said, “and I want to help the company build more, more than where they’re at. I want them to become an amazing company.”
Christine Judd, the director of Roca Western Massachusetts, said for decades, the nonprofit has been partnering with social justice-minded businesses, like CGP, that are willing to hire young people enrolled in the program, “who have been traumatized for years by the impact of the illegal drug trade.”
“We are now honored to partner with a forward-thinking cannabis company,” said Judd, who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Northampton site.
Hanna’s organization is an economic empowerment business, meaning the company had to meet a slew of requirements designed to ensure people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement are included in the legal industry.
According to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who spoke alongside Hanna and members of Roca at the groundbreaking and flag-raising ceremony Tuesday afternoon, noted the future cultivation site aligns with the city’s longstanding goal of promoting equity and inclusion in the local cannabis industry.
“This is one more investor in the cannabis industry, and on many levels, it’s great. You know, we’re reusing a historic mill building that has been empty now for a few years, and then obviously, the economic empowerment aspect,” Narkewicz told MassLive before the groundbreaking. “The fact that this has been one of the goals of the industry, to promote more equity and inclusion, and the fact that we have somebody here who’s committed to that and has a track record in that and is going to invest in that here in Northampton is, again, another reason to be really excited.”
According to Hanna, Narkewicz has been a pioneer in the recreational cannabis industry. In January, he became the first mayor in the state to waive the 3% community impact fee associated with such businesses.
At the groundbreaking, Narkewicz joked that if someone told his daughters he’d be called a pioneer in the industry, they’d laugh at him.
“We’ve done everything we can do to put the pieces in place, so it’s great to see people flocking here to invest in Northampton, seeing it as a welcoming place for the industry,” the mayor said.
For Hanna, the future opening of the cultivation site is a dream come true. She spoke with tears in her eyes at the groundbreaking, noting it’s been a long road to get where she is.
“This has been years in the making,” she said.