As Anchorage pot entrepreneurs jostle for footholds in a tight real estate market, at least one commercial real estate broker is trying to work as a middleman by finding places they could use.
Hugh Wade, who owns Spire Real Estate, has created his own database of properties suitable for a pot shop, or a warehouse for growing marijuana or manufacturing cannabis products. To keep track of fast-moving local regulations, he hired a friend — a land surveyor — to update maps with the latest land-use restrictions.
Marijuana business owners are confronting slim pickings when it comes to available space. Between regulatory restrictions, landlord preferences and a general scarcity of easy-to-develop land, the inventory of possible sites is limited. Local rules are still being written. A special Anchorage Assembly meeting to take up proposed land use and licensing regulations is set for Feb. 4.
That's where Wade and his land surveyor friend, Frank McGuire, come in — the place between evolving regulations and entrepreneurs who want to be first on the market.
"It's where democracy and capitalism meet," McGuire said in a recent interview.
Sitting at a table in Wade's office off Tudor Road, McGuire clicked around on a map of Anchorage, built on a computer with geographic information system technology. He selected different map layers, each with its own type of information. First, he clicked on layers showing industrial or commercial land, which popped up on a big screen connected to his computer.
Then he clicked to pull up buffer zones, based on the latest proposed city regulations: schools, public housing, playgrounds, churches, athletic fields. Red circles popped up over large swaths of Anchorage.
"So you start to see these red zones," McGuire said, looking at the map. "We look for holes … places likely to have the least amount of conflict."
The darker the red, the more conflicts, McGuire said. If an area looks open, it's time to do more investigating — "ground-truthing," he calls it.
McGuire started building the database for Wade a few years ago, prompted by what was already a scarcity of industrial land in the Anchorage Bowl. Wade wanted a system to help clients find properties that weren't on the market but might become available in the future. McGuire used public tax assessment records to build a map of every parcel in the city.
Then, as McGuire put it, "this marijuana thing came along." He got a call from Wade, asking if the database could be used for pot.
"We just started digging in," said Wade, sitting at the table next to McGuire.
The pair started attending city meetings, closely monitoring for changes to regulations. If a change happened, McGuire went back and updated the map.
It's been a fluid process so far. Several updates occurred at the Jan. 11 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, which Wade and McGuire both attended.
In one significant change, the commission took out parks as a protected land use, but approved a 1,000-foot buffer around schools, playgrounds and public housing facilities, which city officials say is consistent with federal drug-free zone guidelines. Adopting federal rules would also add a 100-foot buffer to video arcades.
The new buffer goes beyond the state requirement of a 500-foot separation distance for schools, which was set with rural Alaska in mind, said Cynthia Franklin, director of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. Other states that have legalized commercial marijuana have stuck to 1,000 feet, Franklin said. But industry members, such as Bruce Schulte of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, have criticized the Anchorage rule as excessive, arguing the land-use regulations are making it too difficult to find property in the city.
One entrepreneur, Chris Euscher, who wants to open a pot-growing and manufacturing business with her husband Rick, is among the frustrated. She said she's been searching for a building since May with no success. Euscher has attended every meeting of city policymakers, trying to keep tabs on changes that could affect where businesses can be located.
City planners have released maps aimed at giving a general sense of protected buffer zones in Anchorage, Chugiak-Eagle River and Girdwood, based on their own geographical information technology. But in an interview earlier this month, then-city planning manager Erika McConnell said people shouldn't make investment decisions based on those maps.
"If you're making a decision, you have to go out and put your feet on the ground," McConnell said.
In recent months, Wade and McGuire have been doing exactly that, trying to build up the accuracy of their database. City data isn't perfect, McGuire said. Records can be vague on who owns or leases a building. It's not always obvious where a playground is located.
McGuire's sleuthing has included looking up charter schools, using federal records to find the location of public housing in Anchorage and trying to figure out what qualifies as a "community center."
Through that process, McGuire has come up with a list of parcels that aren't on the market but could be suitable for a marijuana business. Wade, meanwhile, has been making phone calls, asking those property owners if they would be interested in selling or leasing to a marijuana operation. He said some have been receptive. The filter question: "Are you cannabis-friendly?"
Wade said he and McGuire are just businessmen with an idea. It still takes time and investment. Wade calls it "threading the needle" with landlords in the driver's seat.
He works on a commission basis, so he has yet to see any money. It's unclear when he will.
"Everyone in this industry is riding the fence. The rules are changing as we speak," Wade said. "Nobody's committing to anything, everybody's talking to everybody, and we're doing the same thing. There's a million ways to spend a whole bunch of time and get no transactions."
For now, Wade sees marijuana land-brokering as a specialty field, a niche within the industry. As long as he and McGuire stay on top of developments, he said, their database will come in handy.
Correction: An earlier version of the story described Frank McGuire as "professional" land surveyor. While McGuire surveys land, his application for a state license is still pending.