Owners of a medical marijuana grow-op, that is now well established in a former chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, hope to spur on further economic development in this small, eastern Ontario town.

The pot company, Tweed, only occupies about a third of the old Hershey building, so that leaves tens of thousands of square metres of space — the equivalent of about six football fields — ready for other new ventures and new jobs.

When Hershey moved out of town in 2008, it left about 600 people out of work, but to make matters worse, five other employers shut down within the year. This left about 40 per cent of the town’s adult workforce looking for new jobs.

Tweed founder and chair, Bruce Linton says the company spent its first six months satisfying strict regulations as a federally sanctioned marijuana producer. Now, he says the owners can start answering calls from other businesses who’d like to share the vast space.

Tweed Inc medical marijuana

Tweed Inc. is growing 25 different strains of medical marijuana at its facility in Smiths Falls. (CBC)

Some youth in Smiths Falls critical of pot plant:

Not everyone in Smiths Falls is keen on the growth of a medical marijuana operation in the old chocolate factory, and the people complaining aren’t who you might expect.

“I talked to students, quite a few students at the high school, they all had very mixed feelings. A lot of them felt it was going to be negative for the town,” said Howaida Sorour, reporter with the Record News EMC.

Some youth involved with an employment program in Smiths Falls say it’s not the kind of economic development they were hoping for.

“We’d been promised a whole bunch of different things to open up, the one thing that we get is a pot plant… the amount of drugs we have in this town and the amount of problems and this town being in poverty and everything, it’s just not a good place for it,” said Jeff Byrne.

“Mostly the reputation of the town is going to look worse on us, because we’re already known for that kind of thing,” said college student, Audrey Tousignant.

“Unless you bought the entire 40 acres with the huge sewage treatment plant and 500,000 square feet of building you couldn’t occupy any of it. But as soon as we had it, people who’ve been calling are saying, can we take a tour of this area?” said Linton.

Tweed is now entertaining inquiries from breweries, wineries, biofuel refiners, manufacturers, technology startups, solar companies, even a smoked trout business.

While it wasn’t Linton and his team’s initial intent to help stimulate Smiths Fall’s depressed economy, he recognizes that might just happen.

“All the sudden, it’s almost like you become part of where you are. At the beginning we weren’t very attuned to Smiths Falls,” said Linton.

Cows on grass

The proposal that’s garnering the most interest at Tweed is the idea of reusing the old chocolate factory’s dairy production equipment. Millions of litres of milk, from local farms, flowed into the factory over the five decades Hershey was in town.

When Hershey left, that business dried up for the farmers. Linton says most of the dairy equipment is still in place and would not need a great deal of servicing to start working again.

“Local dairy demand was crushed when Hershey disappeared, we may be able to bring it back and create a finished product which will stand up to any competition coming from open free trade agreements and be the best of the best, ” said Linton.

Milk from Henry Oosterhof's farm, not far from Smiths Falls, was delivered to the Hershey factory for years. Oosterhof, who sits on the board of Dairy Farmers of Ontario, says the industry welcomes any opportunity to compete with the 17,000 additional tonnes of cheese expected to flood the Canadian market, from Europe in the coming years.

“People want local. It’s not just a fad. It’s real, it’s here to stay, and I would certainly encourage the gentleman that is thinking of getting a processing plant in Smiths Falls to make all the contacts that he needs.”

And Oosterhof says he wouldn’t mind the idea of a dairy sharing space with a marijuana operation.

Henry Oosterhof, dairy farmer (March 7, 2014)

Henry Oosterhof runs a dairy farm near Smiths Falls, Ont., and wants the former Hershey chocolate factory to once again produce dairy. (CBC)

“There's going to be some jokes about it. Our cows are on grass,” he said, laughing.

The potential to create even more than the one hundred direct jobs anticipated at Tweed is good news to Paul Cadeau, who worked at Hershey for 23 years. Cadeau stayed on as the lone employee to keep the building from freezing up or burning down over the past five years. Today he works for Tweed.

“I think it's pretty exciting. There's a lot of folks who worked in dairy who'd be willing to come back and help a new venture start up,” said Cadeau.