Pot 101: Alberta communities look to cash in big on legal weed

Marijuana is already big business in Canada and there are some southern Alberta communities lining up to fully take advantage of the legalization of recreational cannabis, just months away.

Olds area could see up to 1,000 jobs from 3 facilities

Some Alberta communities are seeing green with recreational cannabis legalization just around the corner and businesses lining up to cash in. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Marijuana is already big business in Canada and some southern Alberta communities are lining up to fully take advantage of recreational cannabis legalization, which is just months away.

The Aurora Cannabis production facility is just a few kilometres down the road from Cremona, Alta. The village had a 2016 population of 444. This was the first facility to set up shop in the province after getting approval in February 2015 from Health Canada.

Penny Sterling, the quality assurance director at the facility, commutes about 40 minutes from nearby Olds, and she's one of about 120 current employees.

"I have a background in chemistry and I've worked in the pharmaceutical quality assurance, quality control roles for 25 years," Sterling told The Homestretch.

"The job that I do is very limited in central Alberta. I have had the opportunity to work in central Alberta for most of my career, which is good because this is where my home is. But this was an opportunity to expand on my career and grow it even further in a unique and growing market."

Cam Battley, chief corporate officer at Aurora Cannabis, says the Cremona area was a perfect fit for the facility. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Cam Battley doesn't live in Alberta, but as the chief corporate officer, he's constantly bouncing between Cremona and Edmonton, where Aurora has its second production site.

He says Cremona has been the perfect fit.

"The original partners were from Cremona, right here in Mountain View County, and that explains why we're here. But it has turned out to be an ideal location for producing cannabis," Battley said.

"Lots of power, lots of water, and it's also got a tremendously valuable workforce. Everything from entry-level positions for harvesters, all the way up to jobs that require advanced science degrees."

Chief cultivator John Barnett, lured from Toronto, says the facility has about 275 different cannabis strains.

"I'm an osteopathic manual practitioner by training. I was brought out here because of the culture around Aurora where it's patient first," Barnett said.

"So this is where the opportunity was."

Director of licencing and one of the founding partners, Dale Lesack, says the plant's timing lined up with the province's economic environment.

"We have a lot of people that got tired of the oil and gas sector. They decided that they wanted to try something new," Lesack said.

"We have a lot of people that are from agricultural backgrounds that are in this community, including people who are graduates of Olds College which is just up the road."

Locals had questions

Battley, meanwhile, says locals initially had questions and some were skeptical.

"Would a cannabis production facility attract crime? And of course that hasn't turned out to be the case at all. Would there be a smell of cannabis in the surrounding community? And of course, that's not the case at all. Today, what we are finding is rural communities essentially competing for investment and for companies to set up in their jurisdictions."

About 50 kilometres northeast in Olds, there are three different production facilities all setting down roots.

Doug Vanhooren, Sundial’s construction director, says the plant near Olds will employ between 500 and 700 people when it's up and running. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Sundial Growers, a company which used to grow cucumbers, was the first to get their license approved. They expect their facility to be up and running by mid-summer after breaking ground in October.

Sundial's construction director says the land is being developed in phases and the company is looking at producing up to 100,000 kilograms each year.

"On your way into the industrial park you see Olds College," Doug Vanhooren said.

"Once you come into the industrial park however, it's probably, and I'm just going to throw a dart, 300 or 400 acres of industrial land here, it's about half developed. You add roads and services and all the sudden it's a little more attractive to be out in the edges of town."

500 to 700 jobs at Sundial alone

Once the plant is up and running they are looking at 500 to 700 employees but until then, there's the construction jobs.

"All of those trade guys are reasonably local, the furthest away is Calgary and Red Deer, but all central Alberta guys," Vanhooren said.

"Over the course of the project I would say we probably cycle through a couple of hundred people. For a town the size of Olds, that's a lot of money going back into the pockets of people who spend it here."

Olds Mayor Michael Muzychka says there's little downside to all the development. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

The town's mayor says he doesn't see a downside to the development.

"I see all positive right now. With the security and the quality control that these production facilities have, you can drive by them on the highway and they just look like any other warehouse out there," Michael Muzychka said.

"So a pretty conservative number that we're throwing around is about 1,000 jobs. Sundial predicts to be about 650 and between the other two we should be pushing the 1,000 job mark in the first three years."

And those workers will need a place to spend their money.

"Spin-off I think down the road will be huge. I think once the employees are here and embedded in our community, we're going to see retail booms as well."

Olds College already specializes in horticulture and agriculture programs, but they are creating cannabis targeted educational programs that are set to kick off this summer. They want to be able to meet the employment demand of the production companies like Sundial as they come online.

Tanya McDonald, Centre for Innovation director at the college, says there are two courses coming up.

"One is a cannabis production facility technician, through four online courses, followed by a short two-week practicum within an actual production facility," McDonald said.

"The second course we would be developing will be the cannabis retail advisor and we're expecting that will also be an online course. We recognize the needs will be very widespread across Alberta, across Western Canada, so we need to make sure that the courses are offered in such a way they're accessible to the many."

With files from Sarah Lawrynuik and The Homestretch