Former State Senator among those Campaigning for Marijuana Business in Royal Oak Township, Mel Farr Site Under Consideration
(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 25, 2019)
Royal Oak Township, MI- Former State Senator Virgil Smith Jr. is among those pushing for a ballot initiative that would allow recreational marijuana businesses in Royal Oak Township. If the ordinance is approved, it would allow for marijuana related businesses on properties that are over five acres and have been vacant for at least five years.
The matter is on the ballot due to a citizen’s petition turned in by resident Rian Thomas, who is part of the committee Invest in Royal Oak Township.
A team of volunteers gathered signatures and has been knocking doors to get the word out. They set up their website https://voterotwp.org. They’ve been putting up lawn signs and even got a billboard on Eight Mile Road. And they’ve hired former State Senator Virgil Smith of Detroit as the community liaison for the campaign.
Smith served as State Senator from 2011 to 2016, when he resigned as part of a plea deal for an incident in which he fired gunshots at his wife’s vehicle. He served ten months in jail. In 2017 he ran unsuccessfully for Detroit City Council. His father was also a State Senator. “I’ve been campaigning since I was eight years old,” Smith said. “I always campaign as if I’m in last place and I’m fighting to win. In this case there is opposition. So we’re campaigning.”
Smith said that a businessperson is exploring the option of opening a dispensary at the former Mel Farr car dealership at 10555 W. 8 mile. Smith said he is not going to be part of operating that business, but is doing communications and community engagement.
Even if Proposal 1 passes, there is no guarantee that a business will open, Smith said.
“This is just the beginning of the process. God willing this passes, but there are still a huge amount of issues to overcome. Nobody will just be opening a business on May 8. They still need to get approval from the state, go through the building code process. All this [ordinance] does is let the state know that people want this type of business in their community. You have to have an opt-in resolution from the local people,” he said.
The location is a desirable one for many reasons. The 14.2 acre property has 107,000 square feet of space on Eight Mile Road. The area has become a destination for medical marijuana users who frequent the dispensaries on the Detroit side of the street.
“That [dealership] closed in 2006. It’s been vacant 13 years. This is an opportunity,” he said. “I believe this industry in general would give the Township an economic engine that it needs.”
Township resident Rian Thomas is the man behind submitting the petitions. He says that in his view the community is in favor of marijuana, but is “un-trusting.”
“People don’t just want businesses coming to town and overrunning it. They want to know what benefits there are for the community. What are you going to do for Royal Oak Township?” Thomas said. “Will this bring money? Is there going to be direct jobs going to our residents? Are they going to hire from our community. And the answer to that is yes.”
Thomas also explained that Royal Oak Township has a significant population of longtime residents who are fearful of outside interference.
Royal Oak Township has a population of about 2,400 people, 95.3% of whom are African American and 2.8% of whom are mixed race. Throughout its history its boundaries have been chipped away by neighboring communities, shrinking from 36 square miles when it was established in 1833 to the .55 square mile area it is today.
Much of the loss happened as cities like Berkley, Royal Oak, and Clawson established themselves as cities in the early 1900s. However, the most recent annexation happened in 2004 when a portion of the community became part of Oak Park.
Through history, Royal Oak Township also saw the emergence of segregation as the school district was divided in 1940. Then the loss that was felt when the state mandated the merger of the community’s predominantly black school district into the Oak Park District in 1960 left further feelings of distrust.
With a median household income of $23,710 in 2010, Royal Oak Township has more economic struggles than neighboring Ferndale whose median income was $45,629. The State took over policing services, and fire department services are handled by Ferndale. In 2014 the Township was deemed to be in a financial emergency by the governor and pushed, without choice, into working with the state to find a path to stability.
The history, Thomas said, makes people untrusting. “People here are proud of our community. We don’t want to be over-run by outside businesses. And we want black owned businesses,” he said.
“To be honest, one of the problems is that the property owner is not black and is not from the township. I can see that, but I can still see doing business,” Thomas said. “This may be the start that gets us going. This [proposal] is not about one person or one business. We can be an enclave of black businesses, but we need something here to start it.”
On his mind are the economic benefits, including a 5% excise tax on all sales, a $50,000 annual licensing fee, and an increase in property tax revenue.
Thomas said he hopes to build his career in the cannabis industry, but isn’t part of the team that’s considering the Mel Farr site.
“I’m trying to get this started in my community for the residents I know of that want marijuana here. I’m the advocate for us, not for any specific business,” he said.
Royal Oak Township Officials did not return calls or emails. Today Oakland County Times visited Township Offices in person, where Deputy Clerk Tiffany Cryer said that all requests for information go through the Township’s attorney, Mike Bosnic. Bosnic has not yet responded to our phone call and email.
However, A letter was mailed to residents’ homes with the names of all seven Township Trustees: Donna Squalls, Richard Miles, Jollie Dixon, Karen Ballard, Cynthia Phillips, Kim Tillery, and Gwen Turner. The letter is not on any letterhead, and it is unclear if the mailing was paid for with Township funds, personal funds, or if there was a committee formed for this ballot question.
“Let’s stick together and send a message and vote no on the proposal that was pushed on our ballot,” the letter read. “Do you not believe what you have read. Putting any of these unwanted marijuana dispensaries into our community will not benefit our family oriented community. It will only hinder our community. May 7, 2019 vote no on proposal one. No marijuana in our community!”
Thomas collected 97 signatures to have the proposal put on the ballot, 56 were required. The election takes place May 7. There is also an operating fund millage renewal on the ballot.
Ballot proposals (millage and proposal 1)
Charter Township of Royal Oak
Invest in Royal Oak Township