Presented by Secret Garden Cannabis
When the search for a commercial lot led James Thornton to a familiar storefront in Fairview, he had a realization about the future of his cannabis business.
Formerly Dooley’s Tuxedo and Costumes, the massive structure at 726 East 15th Avenue was in complete disrepair when Thornton toured it with his family.
But the vacant space took hold of him. And the community of Fairview rallied behind him.
“We stood in front of that storefront — one that has a history in Anchorage — and I said, ‘if we come to this location, I want to make this Fairview’s store,” Thornton said.
Today, the once-dilapidated building in Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood is home to Secret Garden Cannabis, a state-of-the-art facility encompassing all three Alaska marijuana licenses: cultivation, manufacturing, and retail.
Positive impacts from the business are rippling through the community, residents say — but founding Secret Garden has also brought a new sense of purpose for Thornton, who has become a fierce advocate for Fairview in the process.
“He has, and continues to make, a significant difference in Fairview,” said Allen Kemplen, president of the Fairview Community Council.
‘it’s drawing people to the area’
Today, customers enter Secret Garden through a pyramid façade mounted over the doorway, into an inviting retail shop with a wide array of products, offers, and merchandise behind large shop counters.
On a far wall, a small cultivation area known as “the infinite room” is displayed behind glass, with cannabis plants growing under bright lights and buzzing fans.
“The shop kind of revitalized that area,” said Joshua Harrison, a Fairview resident and owner of cannabis apparel company Weemotions, which is sold at the shop.
“Now that Secret Garden is there, it’s drawing people to the area and bringing people to the businesses around it,” Harrison said.
Secret Garden’s storefront is spacious but is just a small portion of the operation.
Thornton and his family overhauled more than 19,000 square feet of commercial space to create the business. The process took three years. Secret Garden opened its doors in August 2019.
The facility is an impressive feat of electrical engineering and plumbing, with cultivation rooms requiring specific light, air circulation, temperature and humidity settings, and other factors to ensure the team and plants stay happy and healthy.
Thornton and his brother designed the space for safety, sanitation, and enjoyment by the team. Roughly 40 full-time team members and several contractors keep Secret Garden running smoothly, Thornton said.
The common area has vintage video games, a record player, couches, and a large whiteboard where team members are recognized, and community and company events are announced.
Along winding hallways, windows into grow rooms allow a peek into the world of commercial cannabis cultivation.
“It’s all part of the dream,” Thornton said of the design, “being able to make a place that is a little bit different, a little more conducive to tours and education. Bringing everyone together.”
Joining a vibrant history of civic action
Fairview is a large and diverse neighborhood, and was once an independent community, until 1954, when the City of Anchorage annexed the area. At the time, Fairview was one the few areas of the city where Black residents could buy property.
Its history includes decades of activism, zoning decisions that altered the fabric of the neighborhood, and long-standing battles against stigmas of increased crime and homelessness.
Since founding Secret Garden, Thornton has become a fierce advocate for Fairview. He sits on Fairview Community Council’s Executive Board and is Chair of the Council’s Homelessness Committee. He volunteers for spring clean-up, helped with the 2022 Fairview Block Party, and recently helped clean a vacant lot which will soon be a community garden, Kemplen said.
“As a small business owner, James has exhibited a talent for multi-tasking in a sometimes-hectic environment, and for treating everyone with respect,” said Kemplen.
“He and his family have made a major investment in the facility,” Kemplen said, and have “truly become vested in the future economic health of our community.”
‘Shaking and moving for the whole community’
Sonya Irwin, manager of infused products at Secret Garden, handcrafts thousands of cannabis treats each week in the company’s commercial kitchen. The most popular products are gummies; more than 400 packs are sold weekly.
Irwin has an associate degree in culinary arts from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and has worked at several well-known local restaurants and bakeries. At Secret Garden, she’s found a creative and encouraging space where she can scheme up new creations.
Irwin was born and raised in Alaska, and lived in Fairview when she first moved to Anchorage. For the team at Secret Garden, seeing Thornton’s commitment to Fairview inspires everyone to make a positive impact, she said.
“It’s so cool to know he’s out there shaking and moving for the whole community,” Irwin said.
For Joshua Harrison, Fairview resident and owner of cannabis apparel company Weemotions, Secret Garden has played a vital role in growing his small business.
Harrison’s unique designs — cannabis characters depicting different emotions — have found a home and a fan base at the store. Secret Garden has also helped him gain a new appreciation for his own work.
“I was actually shocked by how many people loved the brand,” Harrison said. “People legitimately love it.”
Thornton has been a huge advocate for Harrison personally, as well. “There have been times I’ve been tempted to give up, and he’s been there to push me and keep me going,” Harrison said.
Kemplen said Fairview is undergoing a transformation. Positive changes are being led by people who care deeply about the neighborhood — residents like Thornton and the team at Secret Garden.
“Being civically involved — I never thought I would do that,” Thornton said.
But now, Secret Garden’s mission is simple.
“We want to take care of Fairview first,” he said.
This story was sponsored by Secret Garden Cannabis, offering Alaska the finest-grown, highest-quality cannabis products from the heart of Fairview.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Secret Garden Cannabis. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.