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Retail cannabis on the ballot in Richford, Montgomery

On Town Meeting Day, voters in Montgomery and Richford will decide whether or not their municipalities should allow for recreational marijuana businesses to set up shop. What seems like a cut and dried issue to some is anything but.

The rollout follows the passing of S.54, Vermont’s bill to legalize, regulate and tax cannabis sales, which passed in September of last year.

Montgomery Selectboard Chair Charlie Hancock says that two residents came to the board a couple months back with the idea.

“They were essentially advocating for us to put it on the ballot. The board kind of discussed it and said, ‘Look, we don’t think there’s a need to have a petition on this, we think this is something that’s a good question to put before the voters,’ and that’s what we did,” he said.

With the Canadian border closed and tourism dwindling, Hancock says that Montgomery saw this as one more way to spur economic development in the town.

“I don’t think we’re looking at this in the manner of, ‘Hey, we want to become like the Boulder, Colorado of weed tourism,’ but I really do think it’s more kind of like one piece of the puzzle,” says Hancock.

On the other side of town, Richford has hired a team of economic development coordinators to work on ways to bring the community back. This includes finding grants to get additional community funding and helping local businesses get what they need to survive.

Levi Irish is one of those coordinators.

“I think when we look at the history of how we got here ... in the ‘60s and ‘70s people moved away and then we lost some of our properties,” he said in an interview. “... We have an inordinate amount of tenant properties but when the railroad stopped and we closed the furniture factory … you know we’re seeing all these issues.”

According to DataUSA, Richford’s poverty rate is 15.2%. That’s 2% above the national average.

“My hope would be that our entire community benefits from it based on businesses coming into the communities as well as our storefronts, because right now we look like a ghost town,” says Irish.

Vermont’s cannabis law

In passing S.54, the state considered two options: an opt-in or an opt-out. An opt-in would put any decision to be involved in the law up to the towns, and would allow them to create their own system of rules. With an opt-out, once it becomes law, every county or town is open to gain from whatever that law is. The town has the option to hold a vote to step away from the industry and say this is going to be a “dry” county, essentially.

The state chose the opt-in provision, so towns must vote on the issue before offering their own, local licenses to businesses.

Bernardo Antonio is on a mission to let people know that fairness and equity in the cannabis industry is far from a sure thing. He and other members of the nonprofit Vermont Grower’s Association have been going town to town, working with local governing bodies on adjusting language in their legislation.

“Let’s say the VGA didn’t exist and we hadn’t been harassing people for three months and we hadn’t gone to all these towns and hadn’t written up language that was universal so people could take it to their town offices. What you would have right now is only the towns that host the dispensaries would have options. It’s just crazy to me,” says Antonio.

He also says that an opt-in drastically reduces the number of towns where business can operate.

“If it’s an opt-out, all of Vermont is fair game and you’d have maybe five or 10 towns opting out. If they opt in, you have the exact opposite — none of the towns are fair game and only the ones where people do a ton of legwork to get those towns to accept it aren’t,” he said.

Vermont has five large medical marijuana dispensaries: Grassroots Vermont, Phytocare Vermont, Southern Vermont Wellness, Vermont Patients Alliance and Champlain Valley Dispensary. Bernardo says that Champlain Valley is the only dispensary actually financed by a company located in Vermont.

“Owning farmland doesn’t give you an advantage in this game. The only thing that gives you an advantage in this game is having millions of dollars and owning a large warehouse,” says Antonio.

The bill confines cannabis growing operations to 1,000 square feet of land. Language in the bill also changed the definition of cannabis from an agricultural product to a commercial good. Antonio says, as a result, the law has no provision that allows farmers to produce, and allows no tax breaks for farmers.

The new law also gives these companies a head start. They can apply for licenses and sell products to the public about five months earlier than the new retail sales companies, he said.

“Who benefits from an opt-in provision? Cause seemingly no one benefits. Businesses don’t benefit ... the towns don’t benefit because it’s more work for them. The state doesn’t benefit because it’s reducing its tax intake by reducing the amount of stores ... The winner is these out of state multi-state operators that currently own our medical dispensaries,” says Antonio.

While it’s still early in the process, Hancock says that he’s welcome to any type of outreach from the community.

“We certainly haven’t had anyone reach out to the board or me personally expressing any type of angst of negative feelings about it. A lot of folks are still kind of just getting around to looking at the town reports,” he said.

Town Meeting Day in Richford and Montgomery is held on Tuesday, March 2.

2nd Clean Water Ice Fishing Derby raises thousands to clean Lake Champlain

HIGHGATE — Ice fishing shacks could be seen across Missisquoi Bay like distant stars in the night sky Saturday. While some were simply out on the lake seeking a good catch, many were fishing for a cause — namely the cleanliness of the lake on which they fished.

Mill River Brewing hosted the 2nd annual Clean Water Ice Fishing Derby on Saturday, in partnership with the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), Highgate Recreation Department, Martin’s Store and numerous other county businesses and organizations. Funds from the event will go to FNLC, a nonprofit group that dedicates time to ensuring the lake’s cleanliness, as part of an ongoing clean water campaign spearheaded by the brewery and FNLC.

According to Mill River Brewing salesman Corey Williams, the fundraiser brought in about $2,500, between admission fees and some individual donations during the event. Prior to Saturday’s event, the brewery had donated about $7,000 to date to FNLC.

As of about noon Saturday, 150 participants had registered for the event.

“We’re happy with the turnout,” Williams said.

Clean water is needed for beer, but it is important for a variety of reasons, says Mill River Brewing co-owner David Fitzgerald.

“I think we take for granted what clean water does for us,” he said.

Fitzgerald, along with his wife and brewery co-owner Joyce Fitzgerald, were joined by brewery employees, a weigh master and members of the Highgate Recreation Department, who volunteered for the event.

“They’re donating their time to make this happen,” David Fitzgerald said.

Families from around the region took part in Saturday’s fundraiser, and those who caught the heaviest yellow perch every hour won one of a number of prizes, including items and gift certificates from various businesses.

Myles Hakey, 6, of Highgate, had the biggest fish in the first hour, and was in contention around mid-day as well.

Chris Smith, of St. Albans, hadn’t attended the event during the inaugural year, but was glad that the event was keeping a focus on clean water during a season when that usually goes by the wayside.

“I think it’s a great cause,” he said.

Tom Briselden, the newest member of the FNLC board, said funding will go toward a range of projects up and down the coast of Lake Champlain, including an assessment in Georgia, stormwater drainage and erosion management projects.

“There’s probably nine projects going on. A lot of it won’t happen until the spring,” he said. “… That’s our goal, to try and bring resources to the area so we can help with these kind of events.”

Around noon, the Fitzgeralds trucked in meals for participating families, including Mill River’s own barbecue recipes. With COVID-19 stifling many community events in the last year, Joyce Fitzgerald said putting together this year’s event presented some challenges, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome.

Rather than a large gathering at the end of the day — fishing went from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — the Fitzgeralds opted for pre-packaged lunches, with families driving back to the shoreline from their shacks on the ice to refuel. She said the state provided guidelines to help organizers hold the event.

“This is a great opportunity. Especially with COVID, so much has been cancelled and people are feeling so cooped up,” she said. “This is a great outdoor event where everyone can stay spread out and spend family time.”

Gov. Phil Scott speaks during Friday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A voter checks in with poll workers at St. Albans Town’s polling place in the Collins Perley Sports and Fitness Center during the November 2020 election.

MVU’s Steven King plays the puck in the corner during the second period of Saturday’s game.