The ink is drying on a lease that could house Bethel's first cannabis shop.
The owner of an Anchorage marijuana store wants to expand his business to Bethel and bring Alaska's booming cannabis industry to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
For more than a year, ALASKAbuds owner Nick Miller has been getting the same question: "When are you coming to rural Alaska?"
Now, the Anchorage businessman has a tentative answer: January 2019. The location will be in central Bethel, on Third Avenue in the brown building that houses Stan's Barber Shop and the Bethel Family Dental Clinic. Miller says that customers can expect an experience similar to what they would find at ALASKAbuds' Anchorage location.
"There will be normal sales top glass counters, and there will be pre-packaged marijuana in at least one of those counters," Miller said. "And there will be other things like pipes and vape pens and just different things that go with marijuana."
Miller signed the Bethel lease Monday. He sees a high demand in the region. Many of his customers already come from the Yukon-Kuksokwim Delta, and Miller has gotten to know the area well after working construction around the region for a decade.
"And I really like it here," Miller said. "So I thought, if you're going to go to rural Alaska, why not someplace you're familiar with?"
The lease comes after months of preparation. He's talked extensively with Bethel community members, scouted a location that meets the state and municipal requirements, and found a landlord who's comfortable with his business: John Nicholson of the neighboring Nicholson's Auto.
Miller has gained a broad perspective on the cannabis industry in Alaska. In addition to his Anchorage shop, he runs a limited marijuana cultivation operation in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and serves on the Alaska Marijuana Control Board as the industry representative. The biggest lesson that he's learned is that success in the state's cannabis business largely depends on how you treat your neighbors and your community. Miller thinks that he's helped improve both where he's already opened shop.
"No. 1, we cleaned up some buildings that may not have been in the best shape. We have video surveillance, and we have good outdoor lights," Miller said. "My wife is now on the community council board, so we participate at any chance we can."
Miller also encourages his employees to take part in community events like cleanups and heart runs. His shop buys the tickets and serves as a sponsor. Miller plans to continue this outreach in Bethel.
"Even though we don't live here," he said, "you can count on that we'll be involved in the community at every opportunity."
Miller is looking to hire six to eight employees in Bethel. A sales background is helpful, but other skills matter more.
"We're looking for folks with, obviously, knowledge of marijuana, and they just have to be very outgoing and very helpful," Miller said. "You would be surprised at the amount of questions people have when they come in."
Miller applied for his state license this weekend and plans to apply for a city conditional use permit in the coming days. If he receives both, ALASKAbuds in Bethel will open in six months.
"We're actually pretty excited," Miller said, smiling. "It'll be nice to tell folks when they come in and ask, 'When are you coming?' (And respond) 'Well, we're on our way.'"