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Opponents cite proximity to local schools

Anu Sawhney
Group pushes for Dudley pot shop
A group of entrepreneurs is seeking approval to open a marijuana dispensary at 195 Dudley Street. BANNER PHOTO

Residents sparred over the establishment of a cannabis dispensary in Dudley Square last Wednesday during a community meeting in St. John Missionary Baptist Church, where the dispensary owners presented their business plans, addressed community concerns and made a case to their fellow community members for their support going forward.

Roxbury-based entrepreneur Brian Keith presented in the crowded church on behalf of the co-owners of his business, Rooted in Roxbury, explaining how they came to decide to open a dispensary.

“About a year ago,” Keith said, “Solomon and I were both approached by a company. They wanted to give us $1 million because they wanted to bring cannabis to this neighborhood.” 

Rooted in Roxbury is owned by Brian Keith and his wife Joanne Keith, who serves as a zoning commissioner for the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Co-owners are Solomon Chowdhury and his wife Rokeya Begum, who own Dudley Cafe and Shanti restaurants. In the end, the quartet turn down the company’s offer.

“At the end of the day, we reviewed the contract and determined it wasn’t for us; it was for them,” Keith continued. “For those who wanted a foothold in Massachusetts, and we decided we could do it better ourselves and that’s how we got to this point.”

Keith explained that as long-time residents of Boston, he and his Rooted in Roxbury co-owners are best suited to bringing this billion-dollar industry to the area.

“I’ve been here my entire life. I’m not a stranger coming in from outside the community — this is my community,” he said. In addition, the four owners have more than 30 Boston-based investors.

The owners have what they describe as an ‘aggressive’ timeline, with a launch scheduled for January 2020. However, the proposed location, at 195 Dudley Street, is a heavily residential area with one school within 500 feet and another just beyond 500 feet of the potential establishment. Because of a zoning ordinance that prohibits marijuana establishments so close to a school, the owners must be approved for zoning variances that would allow them to operate out of this location.

In the presentation for Wednesday’s community meeting, the owners laid out relevant parts of their business plan and made attempts to address the concerns raised by community members over the last several months.

“We understand that cannabis is controversial, and that people get emotional,” Keith said. “We want to make sure that we’re not just trying to sneak this through into the community, but instead we want to make sure that we’re working to amend our plans as we move forward.”

Community concerns

One of the broader concerns that Rooted in Roxbury has to contend with is whether or not the community feels bringing cannabis into the neighborhood is a step in the right direction.

“Cannabis is already here. Cannabis is in this community today,” Keith explained. “The difference between other locations and the state of Massachusetts is that it’s now decriminalized.”

He added, “We will have a low-key storefront. As per the law, we will not be advertising on signage what we’re selling in that store.”

Another main concern among community members has been the proximity of 195 Dudley Street to schools. According to Keith, a concerned community member and parent from Orchard Gardens suggested closing operations for three hours around school dismissal time.

“We recognize that there is a feeling from some that walking past a cannabis location can have an impact on young people,” Keith said. “We may not agree, but we do recognize and respect it, so we want to be mindful of her request —so we’re going to close for an hour at school dismissal.”

However, concerns of some residents at this community meeting were not assuaged, and some urged the owners to consider an entirely new location.

“Unfortunately, this location is not ideal. It is within 500 feet of the school and they will need a variance,” said one parent in response to the presentation. “I think we need to protect our children. You probably came a bit too late to the party. You could have secured a location that was away from the school.”

But others expressed support.

Aline Mercury, also a parent in the area, expressed support for the business and the positive impact it would have on the neighborhood. “It would remove the stigma that’s existed for so long,” she said. “It’s not like kids these days don’t know about marijuana.”

Several residents also explained that this establishment should not be too controversial, given the presence of liquor stores in the same area.

Dudley Square

In the presentation, Keith also discussed the importance of bringing what he defines as a ‘game-changing industry’ to the area.

“We recognized that Roxbury is the black community of Boston and at the end of the day, Dudley Square is the business district for Roxbury. There was no other place we wanted to be,” he said.

He explained that the business will follow a ‘good neighbor’ policy and commit to the socioeconomic growth of the community. Rooted in Roxbury, he said, will incentivize shopping in Dudley Square by offering rebates to patrons at their store.

Other concerns had to do with practical issues. Many at the meeting worried that the lines outside a dispensary could bring congestion to the area.

“I think that this is a concern held by those who aren’t actually spending their dollars in Dudley,” Keith said. In an interview with The Banner, Keith explained how their program, ‘Dollars to Dudley’ would help revitalize Dudley Square.

“Knowing the reality of what Dudley Square is today, in a predominantly people-of-color neighborhood of Boston where businesses are leaving, we don’t want to see more business of color leave this neighborhood,” Keith said. “So if we’re bringing foot traffic into Dudley Square, we want to do what we can to drive them into those businesses.”

In the coming several months, the co-owners hope to hold several more meetings to help the community understand their plans and amend their plans to better suit their community.

“Our mission is to build a cannabis business that engages, serves and benefits members of the local Roxbury community through financial success and social responsibility.” Keith said

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