By Kyler Sumter
BU News Service
Story published via a special arrangement with The Bay State Banner.
DORCHESTER — More than 60 area residents attended a community meeting in Dorchester’s Strand Theater Monday night, 184 feet away from the storefront that was once Cataloni’s Bar, now the proposed new home for a recreational marijuana shop.
While a few supported the proposal, many in attendance vehemently opposed the idea of locating the pot shop at 8-12 Hancock Street, citing traffic concerns. The room turned hostile as attendees discussed the potential for customers further crowding the area on an already congested street in Uphams Corner.
“We don’t want it here!” some attendees shouted. They questioned two of the owners, Benjamin Virga and Luke Marut: “What’s your business plan?”
In a quick response, on Tuesday the owners changed their business plan from a walk-in retail setup to an app-based, appointment-driven setup. A third owner of the proposed shop was not in attendance.
At the meeting, Domingos DaRosa, who runs Boston Bengals, a Pop Warner football and cheerleading program, expressed concern about how regularly his participants would be near the potential shop.
“The children I serve live off of Hancock. They’re going to walk by this to get to the field,” said DaRosa during the meeting. “They’re already dealing with enough stress in their neighborhood, and we don’t need to add this to their cycle of living.”
He continued, “Bringing this dispensary isn’t going to make Hancock safer, because the dispensary isn’t bringing anything positive.”
Virga said the new format announced Tuesday should alleviate lines of people on the street outside the shop.
“Our plan would be to open as a reservation-based retail shop allowing us to better plan our daily staffing, deliveries and customer experience, in addition to minimizing lines outside of our proposed location,” Virga wrote in an email to two Uphams Corner civic associations Tuesday. “Customers will need to reserve time slots that are available based on the limitations of our store. Walk up business will receive the option of waiting inside our waiting room and will be encouraged to use the time to visit/shop at other stores in Upham’s Corner.”
In addition, Virga promised that products won’t be advertised, will be tamper-proof, and the packaging won’t be enticing to children. He said the goal is for sales to be half in person and half online.
Virga and Marut, who have worked in real estate in Dorchester for 10 years, recently formed a company to pursue licenses for recreational cannabis. Last week, they signed a host community agreement with the town of Berkley, Massachusetts for a site there where they will focus on marijuana production and cultivation. In Boston, they have a purchase and sale agreement with the owner of Cataloni’s where they plan to conduct their dispensing and selling, if approved, after they apply with the state.
During his presentation Monday night, Virga also addressed the question looming in many minds: Why Dorchester?
The business owners said they looked at crime in Boston Police District C-11 and read a California study about marijuana dispensaries. The study showed that in certain California neighborhoods, crime decreased when dispensaries were opened, potentially because those selling drugs illegally didn’t want to compete, and crime increased when those dispensaries closed.
“It only reinforced our desire to bring the dispensary to this location,” Virga said. “Would our investors have preferred that we chased after Newbury Street? Yes. But we’ve spent the last 10 years here, and we know this community and we love this community. And we saw [that] this data felt very positive and [we’re] very focused on trying to do it here.”
There is a thorough application process for these businesses, placing the potential opening of the shop at least one year away.
But many Dorchester residents don’t believe the dispensary will help with issues like drug crimes that currently plague the community.
“The fact that you did a study of our crime, perhaps you should be doing that to help us and not to come put a marijuana dispensary,” resident Joao DePina said. “Perhaps you should look into creating a teen center or something that can educate the people.”
City Councilor Frank Baker of District 3 attended the meeting and said he has received five applications for marijuana dispensaries from different companies.
“I’m not looking to block this business by any stretch. I’m looking for thoughtful ways to roll it out,” Baker said during the public testimony portion of meeting. “I do believe that within this business there’s an opportunity for us as a society to train and get people into this industry. This, I don’t think, is an appropriate location.”
Among his concerns, Baker said the building has no perimeter and no place to discreetly bring in the products.
City of Boston representatives will take the residents’ comments to Alexis Tkachuk, the city’s director of emerging industries, who will make the final decision. In the meantime, Virga plans to continue meetings with the Jones Hill and Hancock Street civic associations later this month.