Fear and loathing in Alberta village gives way to optimism of a marijuana-fuelled recovery

The arrival of Aurora Cannabis on the border of this tiny village initially aroused suspicion, mistrust — even fear — among some residents, who saw a stigma surrounding its main product. But now, a major expansion of the facility provides many with a source of hope.

Aurora Cannabis raised suspicion when it arrived in Cremona, but now it's raising hope

Aurora Cannabis, the only licensed producer of medical marijuana in Alberta, is located just outside Cremona, Alta. (Julien Lecacheur/Radio-Canada)

This story was originally published on Nov. 26.

This is Part 2 of 3 in a series.

See Part 1 here: This small Alberta village could soon be home to the world's largest marijuana factory

See Part 3 here: Medical marijuana still divides doctors, but Calgary patients swear by the drug

The streets of Cremona are nearly deserted as snow falls in late November and the 457 people of this village are mostly busy at work or keeping warm at home.

It's a quiet place, with not much traffic turning off of the nearby Highway 22, which connects the much larger towns of Sundre to the north and Cochrane to the south.

Cremona may be small, but it has the basic amenities residents need — a bank, a restaurant, a hair salon, a grocery store and a gas station — if they don't want to venture into Cochrane's relative hustle and bustle.

But the calm here has been broken in recent years, starting with the closure of the nearby Shell gas plant in 2014, which had been the village's main employer and an economic engine for the area.

Then, a new business came calling, which you might think would be welcome news in a community that's struggling economically, but this one was no run-of-the-mill enterprise.

The arrival of Aurora Cannabis initially aroused suspicion, mistrust — even fear — among some Cremona residents, who saw a stigma surrounding its main product.

Cremona Hotel operator Gerry Neilon remembers being surprised and worried when he first heard about the arrival of a marijuana factory just a few kilometres from his establishment.

"My first reaction was mixed. I wasn't sure what it would be about," he said.

"But upon learning more, I was very excited about it. It's great for our community and my business and all the local businesses, and Alberta's been kind of tough these days."

Neilon said his bar saw an uptick in business from the construction crews that arrived to build the 55,000-square-foot Aurora Cannabis facility, then later from the employees of the plant, itself.

"My waitresses here are ecstatic that they've got more clientele, and I know that their tips and their ring-outs are up," he said, estimating the boost at about five per cent over the pre-Aurora days.

Michael Kerfoot, an environmental project designer in Cremona, said he supports the idea of medical marijuana but has concerns about the way Aurora moved in to town.

From the way it was initially presented, many people believed the facility would be more like a small greenhouse rather than an industrial-scale producer, let alone one that is now set to expand into the largest marijuana factory in the world.

"We do welcome anybody of course, but we like people to be up front about what their intentions are," Kerfoot said.

And while he didn't think the facility — located just outside Cremona — would bring much of an economic boost to the village, Kerfoot said the actual impact has been even less than he expected.

"I thought there would be more people employed locally than turned out to be the case," he said.

Meanwhile, at the village office, discussions between the mayor, councillors and administrators always seem to circle back to one topic — the expansion of Aurora Cannabis.

In a community of this size, big news like this is rare, especially when it comes with the potential to create more than 100 new jobs in the area.

On Nov. 23, the council of surrounding Mountain View County gave the green light to Aurora Cannabis for a planned expansion that would see its marijuana-production facility grow more than tenfold to encompass nearly 700,000 square feet.

Robert Reid, a village councillor, said Aurora could turn into "a real gem" for Cremona and the surrounding area.

"I think it helps substantially to have a high-quality employer — full-time, permanent positions — to support our local businesses," he said.

"And with their talk of expansion, it will certainly put Cremona on the map."

"We're struggling as a village, economically," Reid added.

"As far as the village is concerned, the more employment, the better."

For his part, Cremona Mayor Tim Hagen is enthusiastic, too.

He figures the expansion of Aurora Cannabis will help attract new families to the area, and he's already been in discussions with developers about the potential for building new homes in the community.

Cremona Mayor Tim Hagen hopes the Aurora Cannabis plant will help attract more people to the village. (Julien Lecacheur/Radio-Canada)

"It could mean more jobs for people who have lost jobs or more jobs for people who are looking for jobs closer to where they live," Hagen said.

"People also may come from other places to get a job there, and maybe they'll decide to buy a house and live here."

Still, he said there's been some skepticism about so much marijuana being grown so close to the village, not the least of which comes from his own mother.

"She's a little bit older and she doesn't understand it and she questions me about it quite often," he said.

And while the mayor admits the plant hasn't yet brought a major boost to the overall economy, it's certainly impacted some people more than others.

Back at Neilon's bar at the Cremona Hotel, Sheila Kaspchuck explains why she decided to take a job at the marijuana plant.

Sheila Kaspchuck left a 20-year career with the federal government and now works as a document control manager for Aurora Cannabis, just outside Cremona, Alta. (Radio-Canada)

Kaspchuck said she used to commute an hour and a half each day to Calgary, where she worked for the federal government.

But, seeking a better work-life balance, she started looking for opportunities closer to home in Cremona and landed a position as a document control manager at Aurora, which she loves so far.

"It's a very exciting, new industry to be in," she said.

And she seems far from alone in that sentiment.

"The last posting we had (at Aurora), there were over 150 applications from local residents, just for one position," she said.

"Generally, we offer very, very competitive salaries ... I think one of the better salaries, definitely, the community has to offer."

Cows graze at a farm near Cremona, Alta. (Julien Lecacheur)

On the way out of town, a woman stopped to ask a CBC/Radio-Canada reporter what he was taking photos of, and was thrilled to hear it was for a story about Aurora Cannabis.

Embarrassed about the fact that she's looking for work, she didn't want to go on camera, but nevertheless talked for five minutes straight about the positive impact the marijuana-production facility has had on the community.

She plans to apply the moment the next job is posted.

Translated from French by Robson Fletcher. Photos by Julien Lecacheur & Jocelyn Boissonneault