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Sonoma Valley’s first cannabis dispensary SPARC plans to open 4/20

Sonoma’s first commercial cannabis dispensary is slated to open next week, culminating a long process that involved filing applications, undergoing reviews and securing licenses to fulfill city requirements.

“We are super-excited!” said Erich Pearson, CEO of San Francisco Patient and Resource Center (SPARC), which is slated to open the dispensary, SPARC Sonoma, at 19315 Sonoma Highway on April 20, an international counterculture holiday during which people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. “This is the first step toward what will eventually be a well-established cannabis tourism industry in the valley. We feel we’re just the right company to lead that charge.”

SPARC still needs to obtain occupancy and business permits, but Sonoma Planning Director David Storer said these can likely be procured before April 20.

Pearson plans to feature plenty of promotions and local vendors showcasing products at the opening, but is still working out the details.

SPARC cultivates cannabis in Glen Ellen at its biodynamic-certified farm. The company, which also has a cannabis store in San Francisco, manufactures and distributes its cannabis products at its headquarters in Santa Rosa.

“We have years of experience in advocating for, launching and operating cannabis retail, and thus are confident we’ll deliver the people of Sonoma, the city government and our partnering nonprofits excellent service,” Pearson said.

In addition to its own portfolio of brands, including Besito, Farm Direct and Marigold — which is provided almost entirely by SPARC’s Glen Ellen farm — SPARC Sonoma will carry Sonoma County’s own Garden Society, a line of edibles and prerolls, as well as Santa Rosa’s CannaCraft products, featuring Care By Design and Absolute Xtracts.

Pearson moved from Indiana to Sonoma in 2002 and moved back to Sonoma Valley three years ago to focus on bringing cannabis business and tourism to the Valley.

The Sonoma City Council passed a cannabis ordinance in 2019 authorizing the city to issue cannabis licenses to one retail storefront, one nonretail business, one testing lab and one manufacturing site. Ten proposals were received to open a cannabis retail storefront and at its meeting on Aug. 17, 2020, the City Council awarded SPARC a conditional certificate to open a shop at the site that formerly housed El Gallo Pinto Mexican restaurant.

The circa 1908 building also once housed the renowned Sonoma Grove resort and restaurant, known for its traditional Italian cuisine and proximity to nearby hot springs. The dispensary will display a plaque to commemorate the location’s role in Sonoma Valley’s rich history.

“This was a competitive process,” Pearson said. “SPARC is local, has a long history of safely operating first-class retail stores and has robust community engagement. We feel these were the primary reasons the council chose SPARC.”

SPARC proposed to turn the 4,350-square-foot building into a cannabis service that would be open for retail sales from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. [it actually will be open until 8 p.m. daily] and make deliveries from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The company estimated that it would have 15 to 20 staff members—at least 80% of who live locally—and 28 dedicated parking spaces in a lot shared by neighboring businesses. SPARC promised to donate 5% of its profits to support local nonprofit organizations including Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and La Luz Center.

“We look forward to handing out checks to the nonprofits we have committed to supporting,” Pearson said.

Pearson is relieved that the long process of obtaining approvals and permits is coming to an end, but said that this is quite typical for cannabis dispensaries.

“It involves ordinance drafting, competitive selection process, planning approval process, building permit approval and construction of a highly regulated business,” he said.

Some council members and people from the local cannabis community subsequently asserted that the city’s cannabis ordinance should be revised to allow for more dispensaries. The City Council then amended the ordinance to conditionally allow for a second dispensary by a 3-1 vote, with Madolyn Agrimonti voting against it and Rachel Hundley absent.

At the time, Agrimonti said, “I was proud to move it forward when we approved the last one, but I went beyond my comfort zone,” and added that she “cannot be part of voting yes” to approve a second dispensary.

She said that if the SPARC dispensary charges higher prices than other dispensaries around the country, she is comfortable with a second dispensary, but if it engages in price gouging, she would approve a second dispensary.

Agrimonti remains opposed to a second dispensary.

“I voted for the first dispensary because so much work was done to get an approval,” she said. “I voted to open up the industry, but I’m one and done.”

Although the City Council approved having a second dispensary, it cannot be granted immediately.

“The council wants to see data from SPARC regarding retail sales and its ability to provide community benefits,” Storer said, adding that no applications for a second dispensary have been received.

“I think cities want to see how these operations work from a public safety perspective,” Pearson said. “Also, the winner of the Sonoma permit [SPARC] was required to commit to quite a bit of community giveback. This, combined with excessive regulatory costs, makes a financial analysis of the business prudent prior to issuing more licenses.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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