Are Cannabis “Super Centers” a Cure for the Wheezing American Mall?

Barstow, California, is located in San Bernadino County in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. The city is known for being home to the Fort Irwin National Training Center and the Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, two key armed forces sites. But if Barstow officials’ new cannabis plan comes to fruition, Barstow will soon also be known for its “cannabis super center.”

On January 17, 2023, Barstow’s City Council voted to approve 23 cannabis licenses involved in an extremely large cannabis or “green zone” project. This green zone project will convert an abandoned outlet plaza into a cannabis focused super center. Once a popular retail destination, the 29-acre outlet now sits empty due to a newer outlet mall that opened nearby in the mid-90s. This new project, however, envisions fully making use of the plaza’s 23 buildings with 350,000 square feet of retail space, food court, and parking lot. There are plans for farms, storefronts, and potentially even a cannabis museum. Additionally, the super center also plans to host cannabis events and feature marijuana consumption lounges.

Barstow is located halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, making it a natural stopping point for travelers. Over 60 million individuals travel through Barstow yearly. Despite this, Barstow’s population has remained approximately 23,000 for the past 30 years. The new cannabis super center stands to bring 20,000 new jobs to the region, which means Barstow’s population may soon grow. Most existing residents’ jobs are related to the armed forces sites. The influx of employees for the city’s new cannabis-related businesses represents an opportunity for Barstow’s economy to both grow and diversify.

Barstow is also in a unique position to become a central cannabis hub for San Bernadino County, home to over two million Californians. California legalized recreational marijuana in 2018, allowing local jurisdictions to regulate the marijuana industry. However, like other less populous parts of California, cities in San Bernardino County have been slow to allow for the production and selling of marijuana products. Currently, there are only three other cities in the entire 20,105 square mile county that permit the sale of any marijuana products. This dearth of cannabis suppliers allows for Barstow’s green zone to attract not only travelers but also locals and residents of other nearby cities and towns.

Not all of Barstow’s residents are happy with Barstow’s emerging cannabis policies. One local business owner stated that the development would worsen Barstow’s image as a “drug town” and one local pastor exclaimed that the development would be akin to “saying Barstow belongs to Satan.”

But if Barstow’s plan becomes a success, it could provide a unique blueprint for communities to repurpose abandoned or underutilized malls. Older malls have especially struggled for the past several years as e-commerce has emerged and anchor tenants have gone bankrupt. 

Transitioning malls to cannabis super centers could lead to increased local government revenue from sources such as sales tax and increased property tax. For landlords, an initial wave of green zones could be a boon that allows for reduced vacancy and higher lease rates for beleaguered malls. If this wave becomes too large (or if federal legalization occurs), this will likely lead to increased competition among commercial property owners and drive down lease rates.

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