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Canada  

The town that pot saved

The place pot put on the map, weed capital of Canada, the little town that marijuana saved — folks in Smiths Falls have many ways of describing their community's transformation, but all of them stick to a common theme.

The Ontario community, home to fewer than 9,000 people, had become all too familiar with the pain of economic hardship over the years.

It now finds itself in an enviable position: at the leading edge of the global, multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

The area, about an hour's drive southwest of Ottawa, is home to the headquarters for Tweed Inc. and parent company Canopy Growth Corp., which make up one of the world's largest licensed cannabis companies.

Along with its wider international expansion, around Smiths Falls the producer has been growing like a weed.

The company has created about 800 direct jobs in the community since it started gradually taking over a shuttered Hershey chocolate factory about five years ago. As its local footprint gets bigger, Tweed has also bought and begun to revitalize other buildings around town — some of which had been boarded up for more than a decade.

It has made its mark in the medical marijuana business and the next chapter opens Wednesday, when Canada becomes the first Group of Seven country to legalize recreational marijuana.

People in Smiths Falls are optimistic the end of recreational pot prohibition will be another step towards ending a particularly difficult stretch for the local economy.

"Virtually everybody you talk to would say this has been a real godsend to our community," Shawn Pankow said in an interview inside the town's new welcome centre.

"Our sense of optimism now is high."

About a decade ago, the story was different. Several major employers packed up and left town, taking some 1,500 jobs with them.

Locals say grocery stores closed, neighbours moved away in search of work and the lawns of many deserted homes around town were consumed by tall, out-of-control weeds. The difficult times brought social problems — some people recall referring to the community as "Little Chicago" because of rising crime and hard drug use.

The Hershey facility's closure really stung. It was a symbol for the community and used to attract flocks of chocolate-loving tourists.

The town's tourism hopes now rest on Tweed's new welcome centre, housed in the same building that used to sell broken chocolate bars at a deep discount.

The experience, however, is focused on all things cannabis.

Visitors watch a video on the history of pot use and its prohibition, and can gaze through windows at production rooms covered with jungles of the unmistakable leafy plants.

The community's economic and social progress is still in its early stages, but some businesses say they're already benefiting from an increase in tourists and the company's employees.

"There's certainly a lot of growth happening, but I think there's still a lot to come," said Amy Rensby, whose C'est Tout Bakery has seen a healthy increase in business.

The real estate market has also seen a lift and now multiple offers on a single property have gone from being a rarity to something that's common, said Pauline Aunger, the broker of record for Royal LePage Advantage. The arrival of bidding wars means some houses are now selling for more than their listed prices, she added.

Ken Manwell, who's running for council in the upcoming municipal election, said there's new construction all over town.

"Up until the last couple of years, nothing was happening — it was really a dead situation," said Manwell as he sat with friends in front of the Royal Canadian Legion.



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