Columbia Care, at 4758 N. Milwaukee Ave., wants to expand to a neighboring storefront. Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago

JEFFERSON PARK — Neighbors who back the proposed expansion of a Jefferson Park cannabis dispensary hope the project can finally move forward with a City Council vote this week, even as a powerful voting bloc lines up against it.

Columbia Care, 4758 N. Milwaukee Ave., wants to extend its operation to a neighboring storefront at 4760 N. Milwaukee Ave. Its needed zoning change was advanced to City Council by the Zoning and Building Standards Committee in February. But committee Chair Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) has delayed a final vote in City Council for the past two months over equity concerns in the cannabis industry from the Black Caucus.

Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th), who represents the area and supports the expansion, tried to get his colleagues to support it at an April 21 meeting but the close vote failed. At the time, Tunney said further discussion was needed, but he was hopeful a resolution could be reached so aldermen could vote on the proposal at the next full City Council meeting.

That meeting is set for Wednesday. However, Black Caucus Chair Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said the 20 members of the group were prepared to reject the expansion of the dispensary because none of the owners of Columbia Care are Black or Latino.

The Black Caucus wants to delay all dispensary zoning changes and expansions until a state law to allow more dispensary licenses aimed to boost minority ownership is passed.

Jefferson Park neighbors say Columbia Care has demonstrated a commitment to equity and diversity since opening in 2016, and its expansion will benefit the neighborhood by removing another empty storefront and generating more tax revenue.

“We have issues in this neighborhood with empty storefronts, and [Columbia Care] has been consistently doing business here,” said Maggie Daly Skogsbakken, president of neighborhood group Jefferson Park Forward. “It’s one of the more successful, tax-generating businesses we have right now.”

Daly Skogsbakken, who wrote a letter of support for the plan on behalf of her organization to Gardiner, said the dispensary management has been responsive and engaged with the community since opening.

Initially, some neighbors were hesitant to have a dispensary open in Jefferson Park, but Columbia Care’s management showed the steady business they’d bring to the neighborhood and its safety efforts, like having security and professional screening, Daly Skogsbakken.

Since the state legalized recreational marijuana last year, the Black Caucus has protested the lack of Black- and Brown-owned dispensaries. The caucus tried to stall marijuana sales but failed, and 75 coveted dispensary licenses from the state meant to increase diversity in the industry were delayed in being issued because of the pandemic.

Daly Skogsbakken acknowledged the state faces an equity problem when it comes to dispensary ownership, but she wants to give Columbia Care, which is a New-York-based corporation, the benefit of the doubt it will address the issue and make necessary social equity improvements.

The dispensary has made efforts to hire diverse applicants and support social equity cannabis startups, Daly Skogsbakken said. She has heard nothing but positive reviews from neighbors and local businesses on Columbia Care’s impact.

“My hope is they address the concerns and earn the buy-in that they need to get this passed,” she said. “Nothing tells me they won’t because they have been so engaged and open with our community.”

Columbia Care, which also owns a dispensary in suburban Villa Park and is rapidly expanding nationwide, declined to comment.

Nick Davis, owner of Westons Coffee & Tap Co. at 4872 N. Milwaukee Ave., said Columbia Care has been a solid neighbor. Prior to the pandemic, the coffee shop regularly partnered with the dispensary, letting it use his space for interviews, seminars on the state’s changing marijuana laws and neighborhood trivia events.

The two businesses have also promoted each other through social media posts, flyers and coupons to customers, Davis said.

Davis said he supports the expansion because the dispensary has brought business to the area with great professionalism. He said the Black Caucus’ argument holds no weight, especially because the dispensary is owned by an already-established corporation seeking to grow an existing business versus a new startup.

“This is not the battle to fight for this company,” Davis said.

The dispensary’s past work in helping fund social equity applications and startups shows the company is committed to diversity, and the extension shows Columbia Care has the capital to help the industry grow and others who want in, he said.

Gardiner’s office did not reply to requests for comment. WTTW obtained a letter he sent to the Black Caucus saying the expansion would bring an additional $100,000 in sales tax revenue for the city and create eight jobs. He said it should not be delayed.

“Columbia Care has demonstrated that it is a good corporate citizen and is fully committed to the goals of creating real opportunities in the cannabis industry for social equity applicants, including those from the African-American community,” Gardiner wrote, asking for caucus members’ support.

While it’s not clear if the vote will come up Wednesday, the expansion could fail if the Black Caucus still opposes it and not enough aldermen approve it.

Justin Laurence contributed to this story.

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