Special Election in Washington State Threatens New Industry Jobs
Lauren Sweet is, by any account, a success story. In a job market inhospitable to graduating seniors, she has landed well. Her story is intertwined with another success story: The appearance and rise of the Gallery; an upscale retail cannabis company with stores in Spanaway and Parkland, Washington.
On the day we meet, Sweet is sitting in the spacious staff area behind the showroom of the Gallery in Parkland; the second location of the meteoric brand. The Gallery defies easy description; part store, part art gallery, the artsy retail combo lays the groundwork for an experience that goes against pre-conceived ideas about marijuana establishments.
Sweet recently graduated from the University of Washington in Tacoma with a degree in psychology, and her career is off to a surprisingly quick start in an industry poised to become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
In 2012 voters in Washington State legalized the sale of recreational marijuana. Unlike Colorado, where rollout was smooth, implementation in Washington State was chaotic and beset by roadblocks set up by politicians and local municipalities. In spite of costly legal battles, the impact of legalization has been dramatic and positive.
According to 502data.com, the state has already taken in nearly $193 million in excise taxes and $59 million in sales tax revenue on gross sales approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars.
According to Gallery co-owner, Tedd Wetherbee: “This is an industry where there are opportunities for well-paying jobs, and the Gallery just happens to have the luxury of paying employees a higher wage than average.” When it comes to wages and career opportunities, Sweet is exhibit one.
Sweet applied for an entry-level job fourteen months ago. What she didn’t imagine then was the fast track to a better living and opportunity for promotion that landed her in the manager position less than a year later.
The young company’s record is impressive: The Gallery is now the 6th largest marijuana retailer in Washington State by sales volume. Average salary, after a probation period, is $19 per hour. The company also matches up to 4% of employee 401k contributions for their 37 employees.
For employees like Sweet, the compensation matches the progressive ideals and vision of the company. She sees not just a workplace but a moment in time: “It’s a new industry, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. Everyday is an opportunity for growth.” Personal warmth and extensive product knowledge are requirements for Gallery team members. Wetherbee expressed the company’s hiring philosophy in a sentence: “The way to give the customer the best experience is having a knowledgeable and professional staff. To have top notch staff, you need top notch pay.”
But all is not well on the Gallery front. A special election is approaching on April 26th. At an estimated cost to taxpayers of over $450,000, the election is a sore subject for the majority of voters who thought the issue had been resolved in 2012. Storm clouds are gathering for a county being challenged by an increasing number of costly lawsuits. Pierce County is an expensive entity to insure. It has a history of political miscalculations and missteps that have been costly to taxpayers. Now the recreational marijuana fight threatens one of the fastest growing job machines in the county and has employees at the Gallery concerned for the future.
“This threatens my personal position and what I want to do with my career,” Sweet said. “Especially since we voted for it and the citizens have spoken concerning moving forward.” But for Sweet and others at the Gallery, the fight and the opportunities are not just about them. Sweet’s concern was for the clients she sees every day: “They are contributing members of society, voters, but they are treated as criminals for years after a convincing public vote. Our customer base is so supportive and we want them to have safe access — especially those with medical needs. We create a safe, comfortable environment, otherwise people have to go to the black market that is unsafe. It puts law-abiding citizens in a bad position. They don’t need to be put in.”
Sweet’s personal ethics line up with her parent’s values. Her father, a retired lieutenant colonel and her mother, a social worker for the military, both have interest in treatment and support for wounded warriors. The fight to make cannabis available once and for all is not only a worthy fight but now a career path.
One other quality manifests at the Gallery. As the team is working the shop or promoting the Yes on 1 Campaign for the upcoming election, fun is always in the air. Soft music plays in the background, but laughter is the soundtrack of the Gallery. The vision of Wetherbee and co-owner Mike Henery is contagious. They have captured the imagination of their employees. Sweet sums it up nicely, “Coming out of college I never thought I would be part of an industry like this. Getting in early gives us an opportunity to build something others have yet to attempt.” It’s an an adventure the team and thousands in the community are hoping will endure.