A medical marijuana growing facility with ties to the Jefferson County judge was once committed to operating in Pine Bluff but is now moving on.
Leaders of both counties want the investment and jobs that will come with this facility. Until Wednesday, we fully believed that we would locate in Jefferson County. However, Jon Chadwell (an economic developer with Jackson County) and the leaders of Jackson County simply never gave up.Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, an investor in Natural State Wellness Enterprises
Many in Jefferson County are still shell-shocked today after a Friday announcement that a major medical marijuana growing facility that had announced it was setting up shop here is now pulling out of Pine Bluff in favor of Jackson County.
The exact reason remains unclear, but a “he said/he said” blame game that began shortly after the announcement Friday has come to a boiling point as accusations on both sides are spreading like wildfire.
The group Natural State Wellness Enterprises, partially owned by Hank Wilkins V, the son of Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, applied for and was awarded a medical marijuana growing license by the state last week that could either be used in Jackson or Jefferson counties but not both.
They were the only one of the five license-award-winning entities, including another in Jefferson County, Natural State Medicinals, that applied for a two-county choice. A group spokesman told the Commercial last week that the investors were enthusiastic about locating their operation in Pine Bluff and were looking forward to helping grow the local economy.
But not anymore.
Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, of McDaniel, Richardson, and Calhoun, PLLC and 1.04 percent stakeholder of Natural State Wellness, said Friday afternoon that the decision being changed in the last hour should not reflect on the Jefferson County Economic Development Alliance, whose members had worked to lure the company to this area.
“Caleb McMahon (director of economic development for Jefferson County) and the (Jefferson County Economic Development) Alliance were very professional and did an amazing job,” said McDaniel, who has also represented Wilkins IV in court proceedings.
“Leaders of both counties want the investment and jobs that will come with this facility. Until Wednesday, we fully believed that we would locate in Jefferson County. However, Jon Chadwell (an economic developer with Jackson County) and the leaders of Jackson County simply never gave up.
“This was a complicated business decision based on many factors that were more than just dollars and cents. We are grateful to the leadership of both counties. We are now eager to get to work on construction.”
Scott Hardin, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, said that there was no official notification that Natural State Wellness would be established in either county until the team arrived Friday to pay the $100,000 license fee and the $500,000 performance bond for Jackson County.
“There were no indications as to why Jackson County was chosen over Jefferson County,” Hardin said.
Attempts by the Commercial to reach McMahon on Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful. A reporter was told Friday afternoon by a secretary at the Alliance offices in Pine Bluff that he and other economic leaders were at an off-site meeting about the issue.
McMahon told Arkansas Business early Friday that “one individual” had cost Jefferson County the site, but he wouldn’t say more.
“We’re trying to handle this in a very specific way. It has everybody on my team and everyone involved mad to the point of tears, practically,” he told Arkansas Business.
Jefferson County Election Commission Secretary Stuart “Stu” Soffer said that he is the one being blamed by McMahon and others for Natural State Wellness’ decision to relocate to Jackson County.
Soffer, who spoke mostly off the record, has been a vocal critic of the project because it was to be located on land the tax-funded Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County sold to Natural State Wellness for the cultivation project near the Pines Mall off Interstate 530.
The Commercial was unable to confirm the selling price on Friday.
Soffer has also been at odds for nearly two years with Wilkins IV over Election Commission matters and has made no secret of his disdain for the county judge.
McDaniel didn’t comment on Soffer, but he did not deny that a toxic political environment in Jefferson County could have been behind the company’s decision not to locate here.
In an e-mail to the Commercial late Friday, Soffer responded:
“‘The toxic political atmosphere Mr. McDaniel finds in Jefferson County will dissipate … when County Judge Henry ‘Hank’ Wilkins IV leaves office. Since their growing facility will not be operating before then, I find it to be a weak excuse,” Soffer wrote.
“I have served as an election commissioner since 2003 and we have had three county judges before Wilkins and there has never been any problems because they permitted the Election Commission to do our job and did not interfere with our ability to conduct elections. We anticipate a return to normalcy when the next county judge takes office.”
Simmons Bank Chairman and CEO George Makris, who also chairs the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County, commonly known as the “Tax Board,” told the Commercial Friday that the board had planned to meet this upcoming week to discuss possible incentives for the medical marijuana facility.
He said the fact that Natural State Wellness decided not to locate in Jefferson County after all creates an image that Pine Bluff and the county aren’t business-friendly.
“It’s just very disappointing,” he said.
Bart Calhoun, of McDaniel, Richardson and Calhoun, is the attorney, government relations liaison, and an investor for Natural State Wellness. He said last week after Natural State announced plans to locate in Pine Bluff that “We are very excited to be in Jefferson County. People put a lot of trust in us and we hope to fulfill the patients’ medical needs and look forward to serving the county.”
Calhoun said that the group had applied for licenses in two counties because they didn’t know at the time where the other approved facilities would be located, and Jackson and Jefferson counties are both Tier 4 counties.
Each county in Arkansas is graded by tiers implemented by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which ranks all 75 counties into four divisions on the basis of economic prosperity. Tier 1 counties are the most prosperous, while Tier 4 counties are the least prosperous.
To the northeast in Jackson County, officials are elated at Natural State Wellness’ decision to move there. It now gives their county two medical marijuana growing operations — a distinction Pine Bluff had until Friday.
“We are excited for new business in Jackson County,” said Jon Chadwell, Economic Development Commission for the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. “We know what has been reported in the news, but our policy states that we will leave it up to the company to address the issue.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Jefferson County, as Natural State Medicinals, whose CEO is Joseph C. Courtwright, is still planning to locate on Gravel Pit Rd. near exit 27 on Interstate 530.
The Commercial has so far been unsuccessful in making contact with Courtright or any of his fellow investors.
Courtright is the majority owner of Natural State Medicinals with a 15.72 percent investment stake, followed Susan D. Williams, who holds a 15.02 percent stake. Wendy Perdue LaFrance holds a 10.07 percent stake. Dr. Kelli D. Schlesinger, M.D. holds a 10.07 percent stake. Dr. Alonzo Dean Williams Sr., M.D., holds an 8.45 percent stake.
Kathryne Deane Peck, RDN, holds a 7.51 percent stake. Dr. Donna Mae Mooney, Ph.D., holds a 7.51 percent stake. Stephen Lee LaFrance holds a 5.66 percent stake. Dr. Scott Michael Schlesinger, M.D., holds a 5.66 percent stake. Robert DeBin holds a 4.46 percent stake. Dr. Clifton Bolen Peck, DVM, holds a 4.23 percent stake.
Dr. Donald Keith Mooney, M.D., holds a 4.23 percent stake. Donna Terrell holds a 1.41 percent stake.