Sonoma’s lone dispensary license goes to Sparc

Site of planned storefront cannabis shop at former El Gallo Pinto restaurant on Highway 12|

Sparc, a Santa Rosa-based cannabis company, will receive Sonoma’s lone business license to operate a storefront dispensary in the city limits.

The Sonoma City Council voted 5-0 at its Aug. 17 council meeting, held via the Zoom online platform, to award Sparc a conditional certificate for its proposed cannabis operations at 19315 Sonoma Highway, a site occupied by the recently closed El Gallo Pinto Mexican restaurant.

Under the city’s commercial cannabis ordinance passed in 2019, the city can issue only one license to operate a walk-in retail dispensary.

City officials began fielding proposals for the license in early January of this year and in June had winnowed its applicants down to two finalists: Sparc, which operates several dispensaries in San Francisco and Sonoma County; and Justice Grown, a dispensary proposed by Matanzas Alliance, a social equity group which runs dispensaries throughout several states, including California.

Under its proposal, Sparc would convert the 4,350-square-foot building that has long been a site for various restaurants into a cannabis retail shop and delivery service. The dispensary would be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with deliveries occurring between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sparc estimates it would employ between 15 to 20 staff -- including managers, supervisors, consultants and security personnel -- at least 80 percent of whom will live locally. The dispensary would have 28 dedicated parking spaces in a lot shared by neighboring businesses.

As part of its proposal, Sparc promises to donate 5 percent of its profits to support various local nonprofits, including the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and La Luz Center.

Matanzas Alliance, meanwhile, said it would locate Justice Grown at 865 W. Napa St., the site of the former Community Café, which has long been identified as a potential location for a dispensary. Matanzas spokesperson Jon Loevy stressed during the meeting that his group’s West Napa site was ideal due to its smoother access for traffic and ample parking, boasting 43 dedicated spaces.

Matanzas officials also proposed changing the dispensary name to the Jewel Mathieson Wellness Center in honor of the late artist and medicinal cannabis advocate who died of cancer Aug. 5 at age 62. Mathieson and her husband Ken Brown had been working with Matanzas Alliance and have been the most prominent local faces advocating for Justice Grown.

Brown spoke at the meeting, saying he was “truly touched” by the several tributes to Mathieson made by council members and Matanzas spokespeople. “If you knew Jewel you knew what she stood for and Jewel felt that Justice Grown stood for her own values and I share those values with her,” said Brown.

Matanzas also pledged to donate $1 million to the City of Sonoma over the course of its first five years in operation if granted the license.

All five council members voiced their regard for both proposals.

Councilmember Amy Harrington said she supported Justice Grown, largely due to its $1 million commitment to the community and that it has been supported by Mathieson and Brown. “Ken and Jewel have been advocates for legalized marijuana in Sonoma for at least two decades and I trust their judgment on the vendor that they selected,” said Harrington.

Also in Justice Grown’s corner was Councilmember David Cook, who valued Brown’s involvement and appreciated the naming of the dispensary after Mathieson.

’(The process) was set up in a way that new small businesses ... weren’t able to have a seat at the table and I don’t think that was necessarily a good thing.’ -- Rachel Hundley

But Councilmembers Rachel Hundley, Madolyn Agrimonti and Mayor Logan Harvey tipped the scales toward Sparc, noting that while neither applicant was local to Sonoma, Sparc’s roots in the region were deeper. Sparc was founded in San Francisco by Erich Pearson in 1999 and currently operates three dispensaries in San Francisco and two in Sonoma County, in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. Sparc also operates a cannabis farm in Glen Ellen.

In her comments on the proposals, Hundley lamented that the process the city used to field the applicants created a “bias” against local companies, noting that three of the four final applicants were national companies.

“It was set up in a way that new small businesses, who perhaps hadn’t gotten the capital or level of sophistication we’ve seen (in the national applicants), weren’t able to have a seat at the table and I don’t think that was necessarily a good thing,” said Hundley.

The council ultimately voted unanimously to award Sparc the license. City staff will return at an upcoming meeting with a resolution to grant Sparc its conditional certificate and, with council approval, Sparc’s proposal will then go to the Sonoma Planning Commission for review.

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