FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Council has directed staff to gather more information regarding cannabis retailers expanding outside of the downtown core.

Council has been monitoring the entry of cannabis stores and the impacts on the city since legalization in October 2018. City staff presented these findings to council at a Committee of the Whole Meeting on January 10th.

The report gave two options, to either take the report and make no changes or take the report and direct the staff to present changes to the zoning bylaw as recommended.

The motion was defeated due to a tie. Councillors Byron Stewart,  Lilia Hansen, and Gord Klassen voted in favour, while Mayor Lori Ackerman, Jim Lequiere and Tony Zabinsky were opposed. Councillor Trevor Bolin was not present.

During a January 24th council meeting, Stewart asked council to reconsider cannabis zoning, however, Ackerman brought up Bolin’s vote being a potential conflict of interest due to his business dealings in the community.

On Monday, Bolin says he sought legal advice and that his vote would not be a conflict of interest, which is why council has reconsidered the bylaw changes.

They furthered the conversation on this report, ultimately deciding that they want more information on how changing the bylaw would impact the community.

Stewart brought up staff’s report, stating that concerns are low to non-existent based on information from key stakeholders.

“No issues from RCMP, no issues from community, no issues from Northern Health, no issues from the school district. I don’t see any reason for us to restrict a business,” said Stewart.

Ackerman brought up concerns regarding the look of the downtown core if there were a loss of retailers.

“We have other communities across British Columbia that have allowed boutique retail to go outside of their downtown area and now their downtown is suffering from a lot of empty storefronts,” said Ackerman.

Hansen mentions that with three cannabis stores downtown already, noting  “it is getting tight for somebody else to come in.”

Hansen says she thinks it’s worth seeing what other options there are.

“I just don’t want to see my downtown burdened with too many of the same type,” she said.

“I’m open to hearing what staff has to say.”

Lequire says that his opinion falls in the same lines as Stewart and Hansen.

Ackerman’s believes retail stores that you walk into should be kept downtown, whereas places “like drive-thrus, restaurants, automobile retail, where they need larger places, industrial type of services, that kind of stuff,” be in the periphery of the community.

Ackerman agreed to have staff present all of the options and proposed changes to the zoning bylaw.

Based on public feedback in 2018, it was recommended that stores only be permitted in the downtown core, and service and general commercial zones. However, council adopted the zoning bylaw only allowing stores to operate in the downtown core, which is currently in place.

In the January 10th report, staff sought direction on amendments to the zoning bylaw to expand retail cannabis operations to the originally recommended zones.

“Opening up the C-3 and C-4 commercial zones for Cannabis Retail sales may help promote economic growth in our community by way of new storefronts and allow Cannabis Retail business entrepreneurs the ability to explore more locations based on the market and desire to provide access to Cannabis retail sales within the City,” said city planner Charlene Jackson in the report.

Jackson told council that interest in retail cannabis in the city disappeared after it was consolidated to just the downtown core.

“There’s a lot of property owners in other areas that were interested in opening stores and they couldn’t do so because of the C-2 zoning restriction,” said Jackson.

There are three active cannabis retail stores within the City’s downtown core: Cannabis Corner, The Hive, and the BC Cannabis Store

Staff will present their findings to council at a later date.

With files from Tre Lopushinsky