CARROLLTON – An armed guard and a fence trimmed with barbed wire are the only signs of what lies within the plain metal building behind the police department.
Driving around, you’re more likely to notice the quaint town square or the 36-acre community park than this windowless, beige building set within a quiet industrial park.
But this facility, marked with not a single sign outside, is at the forefront of the state’s newest industry. And folks all around Carrollton, home to about 3,600 people, are banking on a big economic boost from an unlikely source.
Inside this building, workers carefully tend to a green sea of pot plants under a canopy of blinding lights. The smell is unmistakable.
C4, short for Carroll County Cannabis Co., expects its first harvest of medical marijuana this week, putting legal retail pot sales ever closer to patients for the first time in Missouri history. Founder Ty Klein is a Carrollton native and decided to move back home, bringing the marijuana business with him.
Missouri approved cultivation facilities and dispensaries across the state, in metro areas and small communities alike. But Klein believes Carrollton is poised to become a marijuana mecca. His company won three coveted licenses to grow marijuana across two buildings and another license to manufacture marijuana-infused products like gummies and brownies. And a separate cultivation and manufacturing facility is set to open nearby.
“Per capita, Carrollton is going to be the cannabis capital of Missouri,” Klein said. “It truly is.”
Carrollton is the seat of Carroll County, where President Donald Trump won nearly 80% of the vote in 2016 – statewide, Trump carried 56.4% support.
But many people here acknowledge the rare opportunity provided by the state’s burgeoning marijuana business. Rural communities across the Midwest have suffered through decades of population decline and job losses, as people increasingly flocked to cities. Like other small towns, Carrollton has lost major employers and retailers over the years. If C4 grows as anticipated, it could become one of the area’s largest employers.
“We just haven’t had a lot of opportunity for growth of this type,” Falke said. “We’ve taken some hits, so the opportunity now to overcome those with new industry, we’re just really excited.”
Pot in rural Missouri
Patients have been waiting for the build-out of the state’s pot industry since voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2018 sanctioning medical marijuana.
Those who qualify for the program can currently grow plants at home, but the industry is expected to boom in the coming months as commercial growers and retail dispensaries begin to market products en masse.
The state offered licenses to only a fraction of those who applied to grow, manufacture and sell marijuana products. Since then, the program has been under fire as politicians and spurned applicants accuse state officials of conflicts of interests and irregularities in the scoring process.
Hundreds of administrative appeals and lawsuits have piled up. And earlier this month, Missouri House Democrats accused the state agency responsible for regulating the medical marijuana program of obstructing an oversight committee’s examination of the work.
But for all the controversy, the industry continues to mature across the state.
Just outside of St. Louis, Earth City-based BeLeaf Medical, the state’s first approved cultivator, is reportedly nearing its first harvest. And Carrolton’s C4 company hopes to start cutting its plants in early October.
The state licensed several Kansas City-area cultivators, along with 40 dispensaries. Some of those retail stores plan to open their doors as early as October, but industry experts say supply and variety are likely to be limited as the earliest growers bring in their first harvests.
The Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association predicted the industry would create 4,000 jobs and pump half a billion dollars into Missouri’s economy each year.
“Our members alone are out there as we speak spending tens of millions of dollars locally in communities,” said Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the trade association.
That investment has come as many go jobless because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Cardetti said it’s been particularly helpful in rural communities where cultivators and manufacturers are building new facilities or upgrading abandoned ones.
“The loss of manufacturing jobs over the last two decades has hit rural Missouri particularly hard,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons you’ve seen some of these rural communities really embrace this industry as a new potential for economic activity.”
Some of Missouri’s more conservative and rural areas have opposed the industry. But many communities cheered on local applicants, appreciating the economic potential. Places like Chillicothe and Kirksville relaxed zoning standards to encourage marijuana businesses. And in some communities, mayors and police chiefs wrote letters of support as applicants competed for licenses.
Cardetti noted that 2018’s Amendment 2 won more than 65% percent of the vote, winning in nearly all of Missouri’s counties.
“That didn’t just happen with urban and suburban voters,” said Cardetti, who helped lead the drive for the amendment. “In Carroll County, medical marijuana passed by almost double digits.”
A ‘busy’ little town
Some 70 miles east of Kansas City, Carrollton is the quintessential small town.
Main Street Restaurant sells the classic omelets, pork tenderloins and homemade pies. Across the street, the Romanesque county courthouse towers over the tidy green lawn of the town square.
Over by the high school, pickup trucks fill the gravel lot of Ol’ Boys Barbecue at lunch hour. And images of the local mascot, the Trojans, hang on ruby red signs all over town.
But Carrollton houses a mix of vibrancy and decline.
Even on the square, some buildings are boarded up. Little fingers created drawings, like finger paint, on the thick layer of dust covering one storefront.
More than three decades after its closure, people still mourn the loss of the Banquet Foods factory, once the town’s largest employer.
“You don’t replace 500 jobs,” said Mayor Scott Bartlett. “The identity of Carrollton for a long time was with Banquet.”
In 2018, the Census reported Carroll County had a median household income of $42,149 – more than $10,000 below the state average of $53,560.
In recent years, doctors, lawyers and pharmacists have come back home to Carrollton after leaving to chase education and careers. And the housing market is heating up with a limited inventory and rising home prices.
“I don’t want to say it’s a sleepy little town because it’s very busy,” the mayor said.
With a more diverse economy, Carrollton is no longer a company town. But the mayor said it’s just too early to tell whether it might carve out a new identity based on the marijuana business.
Could it be “the cannabis capital of Missouri?”
“I don’t know if that moniker would stick or not,” he said. But we’ve all got to be the first at something or good at something.”
Growing a new crop
Inside C4, most employees work with dirt under their fingernails. Soil covers hands, arms and T-shirts as they move pots of pot around the facility.
The work is a mix of hard labor and science. They plant everything by hand, but the temperature, lighting and humidity of each grow room are closely monitored.
The company started growing with seeds but plans to reproduce all plants from clones in the future. In one room, a narrow aisle separates the racks of towering pot plants, almost ready for harvest.
“There’s a lot of challenges, because it’s brand new,” Klein said during a recent tour. “We’ve never done this before.”
At full capacity, the power needed to run the operation will rival the collective electricity demand for the entire community. That’s partly why the city-owned utility agreed to build a new substation nearby to ensure reliable power.
Klein runs the operation with his childhood friend Brandon Green, who just moved back to town to work as C4’s vice president of sales. The two are hoping to be among the first in the state to harvest product on Oct. 1.
“Then, every 12 days after that we’re going to harvest for eternity,” Klein said.