Kitchener-Waterloo

'It's a lot of one thing': 11 cannabis retailers open — or in progress — in downtown Kitchener

In downtown Kitchener there are 11 cannabis stores that have either opened or are seeking authorization. Coun. Debbie Chapman worries the retailers are being set up to fail.

Municipalities can't restrict where cannabis stores can go or how many to allow

The House of Cannabis is pictured in downtown Kitchener on Nov. 1, 2021. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

On weekends, Alex Kinsella and his family like to walk through downtown Kitchener, window shopping and stopping every now and then for a coffee or treat. 

But in the last year, he's been struck by just how many downtown stores seem to be selling the same thing: cannabis. 

It's especially noticeable on King Street, where there are five cannabis stores authorized to open — and a sixth that's still in the public notice stage — within a roughly two-block area, between Ontario Street and College Street.

"It's a lot of one thing," said Kinsella, a freelance writer.

In total, there are 11 cannabis stores in downtown Kitchener — between the boundaries of Weber Street and Joseph Street, and Victoria Street and Cedar Street — that are either open already or whose applications are in progress.

There are five cannabis stores authorized to open on King Street in downtown Kitchener. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC and Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Sarah Marsh is the city councillor for Ward 10, which covers about half the downtown area. 

"It's a little bit surprising to me that a business owner … would want to open the third, fourth, fifth, tenth or more cannabis shop within such a short distance," Marsh said. "I don't understand how they will all be able to survive." 

Sarah Wilner, an associate professor of marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University, expects some of the region's cannabis shops will end up closing. 

While it remains to be seen how much appetite there is for cannabis retail in Waterloo region, Wilner said there seems to be "a profusion that doesn't probably quite match the patterns of consumption." 

"How they filter out will be interesting," Wilner said. 

'I guess everyone had the same idea'

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) website says there are 37 cannabis stores in Kitchener that are open or have applied to open. There are 22 in Waterloo and 17 in Cambridge that are open now or are still in the application process. 

In comparison, there are a total of 15 LCBOs in the three cities combined, the crown corporation's press office said.

Sarah Marsh represents part of downtown Kitchener as councillor for Ward 10. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Whether a store survives or shutters could depend on if it manages to set itself apart from the competition, Wilner said.

That's the hope for Stash & Co., one of the newest stores to open up along King Street downtown. 

Richa Vajpeyi, the company's chief marketing officer, says the brand distinguishes itself through its knowledgeable "budtenders" and strong customer loyalty program. 

Still, Vajpeyi admits the competition in downtown Kitchener is stiff. 

"To be honest, when we put in the application, we didn't realize that it would become such a hotspot," Vajpeyi said.

"I guess everyone had the same ideas when they came to that location." 

(AGCO)

Over time, Vajpeyi expects some stores will close or move to areas that aren't as saturated. 

Ward 9 Coun. Debbie Chapman agrees that's probably the inevitable outcome. She worries that issuing too many licenses in a small geographic area is setting retailers up to fail. 

"Why on earth would we approve them in the first place if this is the anticipated outcome?" said Chapman, whose ward covers the second half of downtown Kitchener. 

City of Kitchener wants more control

As it stands, cannabis stores are only allowed to open in Ontario municipalities that have chosen to allow cannabis retail, and only in areas where retail operations are permitted. They also must be 150 metres away from schools. 

Otherwise, municipalities have little control over cannabis retail. They can't pass zoning or licensing bylaws to restrict how many shops there are or where they go, Marsh said.

Instead, it's the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) that's charged with issuing operator licenses and authorizing retail store locations. 

In an effort to wrest some more local control over the situation, Marsh brought a motion to Kitchener council in December 2020, asking council to call on the province to: 

  • Modify the rules around the establishment of cannabis stores to include over-concentration as a criteria for evaluation.
  • Require a 500 metre distance separation between stores.
  • Give added weight to a municipality's comments when considering an application for a new store. 
Pur Cannabis is one of five stores that have been authorized to open on a roughly two-block stretch of King Street in downtown Kitchener. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The motion carried but Marsh said the letter hasn't moved the needle so far. Neither have comments the city has submitted during the public input stages of proposed cannabis store locations. 

7 store applications cancelled or withdrawn to date

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General said the province has opted for a retail system based on market demand in an effort to curb the sale of illegal cannabis. 

"This provides consumers with more choice and convenience, as well as a safe, reliable supply of cannabis, while keeping our youth and communities safe," the spokesperson said. 

"This is a key part of our battle against the illegal cannabis market."

Stash and Co. is pictured at 95 King St. W. in Kitchener, Ont. The company's marketing head says it plans to set itself apart through strong customer service. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

If people in the region are concerned about the density of cannabis stores in the downtown or elsewhere, Marsh thinks they may have better luck taking their concerns to the province themselves. 

"There's an election next year. I think that MPPs will listen if enough people voice their concerns," she said. 

CBC K-W asked the AGCO how many applications for retail authorization in the tri-cities have been denied so far. 

To date, the AGCO said two applications for authorization were cancelled because they were too close to schools and another five were withdrawn due to an operator's "own business decisions." 

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