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Here's What Happened to a Small Canadian Town When the Cannabis Industry Moved In

This article is paid for by Zenabis.

People often think that letting a cannabis business move into their neighborhood would be bad for the community. But that certainly hasn't been the case for Atholville, New Brunswick. The small Canadian town has been undergoing quite a renaissance ever since the licensed cannabis producer Zenabis opened a cultivation facility in the town's old textile warehouse.

Before Zenabis invested in the community, Atholville was struggling to recover from years of economic hardship, which only worsened when a prominent paper mill in the nearby town of Dalhousie closed back in 2008.

"We had some people here working down in Dalhousie, and when they lost their mill, they lost their chemical plant, NB Power, the wharf and everything. It had an impact not only on Dalhousie but on the whole area," Atholville Mayor Michel Soucy told Civilized. "There was less money in the area. Walking through the shopping mall, you would see just a few people. It was hard to find major stores to come to the area."

Now Mayor Soucy looks around and sees the town bustling again, especially in the parking lot of the Zenabis facility, which has created over 300 new jobs. 

"I can see the Zenabis parking space from my living room window, which is packed with vehicles every morning. That means there’s a lot of people working there," he said. "We lived for so many years with the mills in Atholville, Dalhousie, and Bathurst. Across Northern New Brunswick, we lived through a period of near-depression because of all those closures. Now with Zenabis and what’s building around it, we see more and more positive economic impact."

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Inside Zenabis' cultivation facility in Atholville.

The Atholville Revival

The opening of Zenabis' cultivation facility has provided a big economic boost to Atholville as well as the rest of Northern New Brunswick. Many of Zenabis' employees are commuting from nearby communities in the area, which means there are many new faces in Atholville. And they have money to spend while they're in town.

"People coming here from Campbellton or other towns have not been known to shop, but now that they’re working here, they’ll spend a little bit more," Mayor Soucy said. "While traveling to Zenabis, they drive through our municipality and they stop somewhere to buy gas, or go into a restaurant, or buy groceries. That means a lot for the municipality. I see an improvement in the economy, and I see an improvement in people’s attitudes. We see that people are more positive. I’m so pleased with the results so far."

That spike in the number of shoppers visiting Atholville has encouraged other businesses to follow Zenabis' lead by investing in the community.

"We have a company from Quebec that purchased our mall," Mayor Soucy said. "Every day they’re working hard to find new businesses for the mall. It used to be full of closing stores, but now it's making a comeback."

Meanwhile, other big businesses are renovating their existing locations to meet consumer demand.

"We have a commercial area where we see more and more people spending money. For a long time, the Canadian Tire in Atholville held out on an expansion of that store. But last year, they made the decision to expand. The owner felt there were more and more people going there to spend money, and they wanted to give a better service and bigger floor area to add more products. I think they felt that it was time to invest. A&W also invested new money in renovating their restaurant, and we've heard that the Ford dealership might develop a new look on their building. This creates the momentum that we needed."

Atholville has also seen an influx of former residents who moved away for better job prospects. Now they are returning home thanks to the job opportunities that have become available since Zenabis moved into the community.

"I would say ten years ago, the young were leaving to study outside and were saying, 'I’m not coming back to Restigouche County, there are no jobs,'" Mayor Soucy added. "Zenabis was part of the plans we put in place to bring our kids back home. Young couples that went to Moncton, or Montreal, or out west, are now coming back because there are jobs available for them. I hear less and less people saying, 'It’s Northern New Brunswick, there’s no work’ or ‘When I leave, I’m not coming back.' We don’t hear those comments much anymore. People are coming back because there are job opportunities and the economy is a lot better now thanks to Zenabis and the investments in our commercial areas."

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'Our Primary Objective is to Remain as Local as Possible'

Atholville's success stems, in part, from their willingness to embrace the cannabis industry and make Zenabis part of the community.

"The Village of Atholville is a very hospitable community," May Nazair - Director of Compliance and Regulatory Affairs for Zenabis - told Civilized. "When news of Zenabis came to town and people learned of the potential for job creation and economic development as a result of that, they were extremely positive and supportive of the project. The community was very welcoming from the onset. Local businesses offered their support and expertise to assist in any way they could. Overall, it was a great experience. Both residents and business leaders shared their positivity and support for the company. In fact, the local chamber of commerce was very active in voicing their support to all levels of government."

Mayor Soucy was also impressed with how easy it was to convince local stakeholders to welcome the cannabis industry.

"People were open to this, and it’s been very positive for the area," Mayor Soucy said. "The Chamber of Commerce was on board, and we had different organizations that were there to assist in getting this going. Everybody was in: businesses, citizens, and groups. Everybody was behind this project."

That kind of enthusiasm isn't surprising when you consider what Zenabis can offer communities like Atholville. On top of creating approximately 330 jobs, the facility has also boosted the community's economy by working with local businesses.

"We have been expanding our warehouse operations since the beginning and have employed hundreds of skilled trades and contractors for over two years," Nazair said. "We have also subcontracted many services such as laundry services, laboratory services, suppliers of cleaning agents and equipment, warehouse equipment, and so on. We are working with many businesses to meet our operational needs, with our primary objective of remaining as local as possible."

And even though Zenabis has only been in the area for 5 years, they've already seen big changes in the community.

"We’ve noticed more shops and restaurants opening up over the past couple of years. We’ve also noticed more homes being sold. The rental market definitely went up as many of the newcomers relocating to the area required lodging," Nazair said.

Giving Back to the Community

For Zenabis, investing in Atholville and the surrounding region involves much more than running a successful cultivation facility. 

"We would love to see the Village of Atholville, its residents, and surrounding community grow and thrive economically," Nazair said. "We want to contribute to the success of the communities in which we are located."

To fulfill that mission, Zenabis is working with local stakeholders to enrich the lives of residents.

"We have a Corporate Social Responsibility Officer who coordinates initiatives and partnerships with various community events and activities," Nazair added. "As a company, we also promote local community events to the staff. In addition, we have a vibrant social committee that encourages participation in local activities and volunteering."

They're also investing in the community's future by investing in education programs. 

"We’ve partnered with the local community college and assisted in the development of a cannabis cultivation course," said Nazair. “This program is now in its 3rd offering with as many as 20 students per cohort. All the students complete their on-the-job training at our Atholville site, which gives us a chance to get to know them, and many of them are presented with offers of employment upon successful completion of their course."

While Zenabis represents a new chapter in the community's history, they've also tried to keep the past alive by holding onto a few relics from their facility's former life.

"The facility is located in an old warehouse that was used for storing textiles," Nazair explained. “While the Zenabis team cleared out the cobwebs from the old building, they also kept a few artifacts to celebrate the building's past. We’ve kept a few pieces that have marked significant milestones for the company. One such artifact is the golden sledgehammer that we used at the grand announcement of receiving the 'confirmation of readiness' letter from Health Canada for the project.”

Zenabis is also brightening Atholville's future by encouraging other companies to move into the community. While some might balk at the idea of moving to the northern part of the province, which is sparsely populated and notoriously cold, Nazair says that there's a lot to love about the region.

"It’s quiet and beautiful. I love the outdoors and I get plenty of opportunities to be active any time of year. The winters are long but there’s a ski hill in our backyard and snowmobile trails all over this part of the province. In the summer, the Restigouche river is beautiful for canoeing and kayaking, and Sugarloaf Mountain is perfect for hiking. Plus, it's a short 5-minute drive from the Province of Quebec."

That's why she tells other licensed cannabis producers to consider opening facilities in similar towns and villages.

"Rural communities can certainly benefit from the economic spinoffs of having a cannabis facility operating within. There are economic benefits for everyone—the municipality, local businesses, and residents alike."

Meanwhile, Mayor Soucy is hoping that Zenabis is here to stay.

"I hope that this will last," he said. "And I hope that the employees working there now can stay here and work in such a great place."


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