The marijuana mega-campus with 45 greenhouses is being built on the coast of the Bay Area. Will it be the “apple of cannabis”?

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Richard Driver had the Epiphany in December 2015 while strolling down a busy street in Richmond.

With narrowed eyes on the north coast, he saw a bare stretch of land and knew exactly how to fill it: with cannabis.

Enough cannabis, he later said, to bring 500 jobs and up to $ 11 million in annual tax revenue to the local economy, and enough to lure tourists to a city long dominated by its chevron oil refinery.

The 18.8-acre facility that crystallized in Driver’s head that day was the kind of hub many investors and entrepreneurs pondered when California voters legalized recreational marijuana sales in 2016: solar-powered greenhouses, nurseries, Tasting rooms – something like a ferry building for cannabis.

And as it turned out, the land was for sale.

If the first phase of Driver’s PowerPlant Park with 19 marijuana greenhouses may open as early as February, this could be a shining model for a market that never lived up to expectations. It could also turn a troubled East Bay city into a regional marijuana powerhouse.

Or it could be some other Quixotic idea that goes up in smoke.

During the six years of planning, Driver ran out of money and his schedule was turned upside down more than once. But he’s also made tempting promises to the city, including that 5% of his net profits will go to charity.

PowerPlant Park developer Richard Driver will speak to equity partner Robert Livingston in Driver’s office in Richmond, California on Tuesday, September 29, 2021.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Sitting in his Point Richmond office, surrounded by drawings and dioramas of the project, as well as a Bible and a painting by Abraham Lincoln, Driver exuded optimism. While PowerPlant is still a sprawling construction site, it expects it to be open for operations in early 2022, with the entire campus of 45 greenhouses being built by next fall – according to city planning documents.

“I think of it as the apple of cannabis,” he said, comparing PowerPlant Park to the Silicon Valley company’s gleaming headquarters in Cupertino.

“There is retail, distribution, transportation, and full-blown cultivation on campus,” he added. “There is no such project in the country.”

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, whose architectural firm is designing the project, praised some of its elements. The park-like setting would attract tourists; mixing different types of companies would allow them to split operating and licensing costs; the dependence on solar energy would correspond to the values ​​of the Bay Area.

However, Butt also tried to be pragmatic about the potential impact of PowerPlant. Although he agreed that the Richmond campus would bring income, jobs, and visitors, he did not see it as a great engine of the economy.

Butt sits on the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, one of two bodies PowerPlant must approve before the city issues building permits. He plans to withdraw from all votes on the project. To date, Driver’s company, Divine Development Group, has applied for eight different types of cannabis licenses for development, including cultivation, processing, and drive-through sales.

PowerPlant Park developer Richard Driver (center) will be led by Constance Finley and Josh Taylor of Constance Therapys in San Francisco, California on Tuesday, September 29, 2021.  Driver recently partnered with Finley to serve as a hub for Finley's Howard Street facility.

PowerPlant Park developer Richard Driver (center) will be led by Constance Finley and Josh Taylor of Constance Therapys in San Francisco, California on Tuesday, September 29, 2021. Driver recently partnered with Finley to serve as a hub for Finley’s Howard Street facility.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Cannabis regulatory advisor Sean Donahoe has seen others try the campus concept with mixed results. In Sacramento, the 11 hectare Natura Life + Science campus survived its first year of operation unscathed. But last month, Canadian company Aurora Cannabis Inc. closed a campus in Edmonton, saying in a statement that after careful review, it would have to make “tough but responsible changes.”

Some observers noted that ambitious developments in the Bay Area are particularly risky because land is so expensive and plans are entangled in a web of permits and government bureaucracy. Such obstacles could explain why viticulture-style cannabis centers are not showing up in neighboring cities, said PowerPlant architect Andrew Butt, who helped design other cannabis facilities.

Campuses “take up a lot of space,” said Butt, “and there is only so much land in the Bay Area. Most of these (operations) take place in industrial buildings. “

“To be honest,” he added, “it is a challenge to allow and build developments of any kind, and the larger and more complex they are, the more difficult it is.”

At one point, Oakland cannabis entrepreneurs had discussed the possibility of greenhouses near the airport, according to Donahoe, but the dream never came true.

Driver, on the other hand, is a courageous entrepreneur who wants to prove to his skeptics that they are wrong.

He tells a compelling story of his entry into the cannabis world after his son, then five, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in 1998. Doctors prescribed a cocktail of psychotropic drugs, the driver called “various compounds of amphetamines,” which made his son’s condition worse, he said.

PowerPlant Park developer Richard Driver sits near a miniature greenhouse in his office in Richmond, California on Tuesday, September 29, 2021.

PowerPlant Park developer Richard Driver sits near a miniature greenhouse in his office in Richmond, California on Tuesday, September 29, 2021.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

So Driver researched and decided to get his son off the medication and switch to a cannabis regimen at the age of 13. Considering the shift a success, he soon got hooked on the marijuana industry, buying a delivery service in San Diego in 2014 and then growing 700 plants in his old Novato home. In 2015, the fire brigade stopped this operation because driver had rebuilt the wiring in the house for his harvest.

“It got me trying to find space,” he said, explaining how he ended up on Richmond Parkway on a brittle winter afternoon looking for properties to buy.

He admitted he was struggling to raise enough money for his valued $ 30 million business, which drained his family savings before submitting the preliminary drawings.

“I can’t tell you how many times this project has been life sustaining,” he said, pointing to several financial lifeboats, including his mother, who borrowed money for her San Francisco home; the landowner who leased him the property and then raised $ 1.4 million to go through the permit process; and tenants who paid down payments for 28 greenhouses.

Still, he recently experienced another setback when the PowerPlant solar engineer discovered that an off-grid solar panel system wouldn’t generate enough power to power the first phase of the park. Driver hopes to be able to use a neighboring solar park once all four phases have been completed. Its business goals are aggressive: to produce 140,000 pounds of cannabis annually.

In his office, the indomitable businessman has a box of wrapping paper ready: tinctures, balms, steam cartridges, glass pipes, euphoric gummy bears.

In five months’ time, Driver expects visitors to flock to Richmond for these items and place orders online to pick them up at a drive-through window. The area is idyllic, with palm trees, picnic tables, and landscaped walkways leading to the Bay Trail, he said. And behind the security gates, almost 200 cars can fit onto the road at the same time.

Rachel Swan is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @rachelswan



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