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From Former Prisons to Walmarts, Cannabis Companies Are Breathing New Life Into Vacant Buildings

The growing trend is sweeping the country.

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If there’s one truth in life, it’s that weed can grow just about anywhere. Backyards,  greenhouses, basements, rolling hills and acres of farms in every state, and even prisons. Well, a former prison, anyway.

One of the nation’s leading cannabis operators, Green Thumb Industries will open a modern ‘cannabis campus’ on the site of a former federal prison in Warwick, New York. It’s sort of a full-circle scenario for the industry, says Ben Kovler, founder and CEO.

“Today is an example of the next great American growth story in action,” Kovler said at the groundbreaking. “This site used to be a federal prison that incarcerated individuals targeted by cannabis prohibition. Now it will become an economic hub that manufactures high-quality cannabis products, creates hundreds of new jobs, and contributes positively to the local community.”

RELATED: Cannabis Production Facility Opening on New York Former Federal Prison Site

A growing trend

According to Architectural Digest, cannabis companies finding more and more unique locations for everything from retail shops to grow operations is a growing trend as the industry continues to blossom. 

There’s some poetic justice to some of these transformations. Green Thumb isn’t the first prison-to-pot farm: In 2016, Ocean Grown Extracts purchased a former prison site in Coalinga, California, to manufacture its various products. In Flint, Michigan, Evergrow wants to build their new home in a former police training facility. In New Jersey, Harmony Dispensary set up shop in an industrial complex that formerly housed the pharmaceutical giant Merck. 

The switcheroos are often welcome; sometimes not. A decades-old farm known for spreading holiday joy with its poinsettias, pumpkins, and Christmas trees now grows medical marijuana, which offers its own kind of relaxation and cheer. But one of the country’s biggest cultivators, Verano Holdings, took over a former Walmart as a mega-grow room in Readington, much to some neighbors' chagrin, however.

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Serving a need

Cannabis is a legitimate business across the country, so it makes sense that industry leaders want to improve communities left scourged by economic downturns.

“We believe that life is better with cannabis, so we build growth processing facilities in neighborhoods that want and need us to better the community,” Josh Genderson, CEO of Holistic Industries, told Architectural Digest. “Part of what we look for when scouting locations for our facilities is a property that has been abandoned or neglected that we can revitalize.”

One such place was a former Michigan bowling alley that is now a sprawling 64,000-square-foot growth and retail outpost for Holistic Industries. It was a $20 million investment for the town of Madison Heights that created 150 new jobs. 

"We will continue to fund projects and initiatives that are important to the city and its residents, because what is important to Madison Heights is important to us as we deliver on our mission to be the best place to work, shop and invest in cannabis,” Genderson said when it opened in 2021.