West Loop Alderman’s Message To Weed Dispensary Owners: Get A Black Partner Or Don’t Come To My Ward

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Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (Twitter)

The 11 firms permitted to sell weed on Jan. 1 in Chicago are all owned by white men. “We don’t want to have folks be sharecroppers,” Burnett said.

By Justin Laurence, Block Club Chicago

At a tense meeting Wednesday, December 4, Chicago’s Black aldermen unleashed their frustrations with a lack of minority ownership as recreational weed sales are set to go legal.

And one alderman has a message for dispensaries hoping to open in his ward: Come with a black partner, or don’t come at all.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), a veteran Black alderman who represents a diverse ward that includes the booming West Loop and the affluent Near North Side, said he’ll only support dispensaries aiming to open in the 27th Ward if they are partnering with a Black firm or operator. The 11 firms permitted to sell weed on Jan. 1 in Chicago — all of which were given priority because they operate medical dispensaries — are owned by white men.

“If they don’t have an African-American partner, don’t waste your time coming to see me, because I don’t even want to talk to them,” Burnett said. “Because I think you’re just being a racist in my face when you talk to me about this stuff and you don’t allow African-Americans to be your partner.”

Burnett said he’s happy the new industry will provide jobs for Black people, but that’s not enough.

“We don’t want to have folks be sharecroppers in this business,” he said. “We’re not just coming out of slavery and people just feeding us stuff or giving us stuff. We want our folks to be able to fish on their own, to feed themselves and to be in power.”

Historically, Burnett’s vow would have killed the chances of dispensaries opening in his ward without his blessing. But with Mayor Lori Lightfoot aiming to end aldermanic prerogative, Burnett said after the meeting he knows he may not be able to stop dispensaries from opening in his ward like he once could.

But without his support, it will make opening there difficult. All new operators must hold at least one community meeting prior to seeking a special use permit at the Zoning Board of Appeals. Additionally, if the desired location requires a zoning change, the company would have to have it approved at City Council, where the alderman’s objections would be heard.

The 27th Ward alone includes parts of the North, Central, Northwest and West cannabis zones.

Burnett said he has not liked how the conversations have gone with the dispensaries wishing to open in his ward. “Several” dispensary owners are trying to meet with him to open in Fulton Market or in the Halsted Triangle near North and Clybourn, he said.

He said he’ll tell them they need African-American partners, and they respond: “They tell me … that they’re a corporation, right? That they’re a corporation so they can’t just pull people into their corporation.”

Burnett said if large construction companies in Chicago partner with minority-owned contractors to get a job, weed dispensaries looking for his support can open locations as a joint venture with a smaller minority-owned company, too.

“These guys keep coming to me with these dumbed-down conversations like people are stupid, and it’s very insulting,” he said.

“I’m an African-American alderman representing a very diverse ward. I don’t mind other [ethnicities] getting a large piece of the pie,” Burnett said. “All I’m trying to do is make sure that the African-Americans get a piece of this pie.”

The Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity meeting was called to discuss the a proposed ordinance supported by the Black Caucus that would aim to delay recreational cannabis sales until July 1.

Ahead of the meeting, the proposal was considered a long shot. No vote was taken and no plan that could advance the measure to City Council for a vote was outlined.

Ald. Jason Ervin, (28th) chair of the Black Caucus and lead sponsor of the measure, declined to comment after the meeting.

During the meeting, Ervin said the issue is simple.

“For there to be zero African-American ownership I think is a travesty. I think it’s something that we as a council need to take a stand on,” he said.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chair of the committee and co-sponsor of the measure, told Ervin she hoped what was said during the hearing would persuade him to drop his push to delay sales until July 1.

“To stop [cannabis sales] in the beginning I think would be unfair to those that would want to have an input throughout the whole entire process,” Austin said.

Paul Stewart, cannabis advisor to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, was on hand to answer questions from aldermen angry over the lack of minority ownership.

Stewart said the anger he was hearing from the aldermen was valid, but he said that energy shouldn’t be used to delay sales. He estimated there are 250 social equity applicants for the next round of state licenses to be doled out in May.

Aldermen should “assist the [social equity applicants] that are going through the state process. We don’t have the ability to change the state process today. Perhaps that will happen in the future,” he said.

Seke Ballard, founder and CEO of Good Tree Capital, a firm provides small business loans to cannabis dispensaries, said 100 of the 250 social equity applicants Stewart referenced are working with his company. Any effort to delay sales was a waste, he said.

City Council should instead be “focused on how do we get these people the technical and financial resources they need now,” Ballard said.

In a statement, Lightfoot spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said the mayor looks forward to engaging with aldermen as the city prepares for legalization.

“We remain open to discussing productive ways to partner on advancing social equity for this new industry,” she said.

Burnett noted that the 20 black aldermen in Chicago’s Black Caucus represent vast swaths of the city. Alds. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Sophia King (4th) represent key parts of Downtown where dispensaries aim to open, he said.

“We wouldn’t be going through this if these guys [tried] to figure out a way to allow for African-Americans to participate in this business,” Burnett said. “What if all African-Americans say, ‘we’re gonna boycott, we’re going to boycott your business because you don’t have African-American partners?’ … It’s just very dismissive and insensitive to our community. You know, it is something that needs to be done.”

This article originally appeared in Block Club Chicago.

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