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December 11, 2023 5 We Watched

Ray, Hercules carve out pieces of CT’s new recreational cannabis industry

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Kennard Ray and Tiana Hercules will each be debuting their own separate cannabis business ventures in 2023.
Tiana Hercules and Kennard Ray
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Just about a year into the launch of the state’s adult-use cannabis market, numerous new marijuana-related businesses have sprouted up across the state, with more expected to come online in 2024.

Two entrepreneurs making an impact on the industry are Hartford resident Kennard Ray and former Hartford city councilwoman and attorney Tiana Hercules.

In February, Ray partnered with Connecticut-based cannabis company Fine Fettle to open a dispensary in Manchester, making history as the first social equity joint venture to debut in the state.

Under the state’s equity joint venture program, an existing medical cannabis retailer can partner with qualified social equity applicants to open new businesses without going through the license lottery process.

Ray said Fine Fettle has plans to open additional dispensaries across the state, and construction of the company’s Bloomfield grow and processing facility is set to begin early in 2024.

Meantime, Hercules is finalizing plans for her cannabis company, CT Cultivation Solutions, to open a grow and production facility in Bloomfield in partnership with Florida-based AYR Wellness Inc.

She is opening the facility through a disproportionately impacted area cultivation license, which was available during a one-time, 90-day window in 2022, and not subject to the lottery, like other license types.

To qualify for such a license, applicants have to live or have lived in certain areas of the state impacted by higher poverty and drug-conviction rates.

A year in business

As Fine Fettle’s first social equity partner, Ray has majority ownership in the company’s Manchester dispensary and oversees operations at that site.

He also has a role in helping open the company’s other social equity businesses, including the Bloomfield grow operation.

Ray opened Fine Fettle Manchester at 91 Hale Road, in February 2023, just weeks after the recreational market debuted. “Manchester has been amazing — I couldn’t ask for more,” Ray said. “I think we’re probably the best-performing (equity joint venture) in the state.”

Ray declined to disclose any financial information related to the Manchester dispensary.

Fine Fettle is constructing a 45,600-square-foot building on a 10.41-acre property at 10 Mosey Drive, in Bloomfield, for its first Connecticut cultivation and production facility.

Up to 20,000 square feet will be reserved for grow space. The facility will have nine rooms for flowering, three for vegetation, three for drying, and one each for curing, trimming and packaging. It will also include a large cannabis extraction room.

Ray said his near-term focus is helping oversee the year-long build out of the Bloomfield facility, and the opening of Fine Fettle dispensaries in Bristol, Norwalk and Old Saybrook.

“I think we’re headed towards what I would call a banner year, and the type that we want to have year-over-year,” Ray said. “I’ve dedicated a lot of my time to extending the Fine Fettle brand and the Fine Fettle name all over the state.”

Getting off the ground

In September 2023, Hercules and her partner, AYR Wellness, won local zoning approvals to construct a 64,000-square-foot, one-floor cannabis cultivation facility at 101 Granby St., in Bloomfield.

Hercules said she’s been working to finalize plans with the state before breaking ground on the project, which will take about 18 months to complete.

The facility will be AYR’s first business venture in Connecticut, adding to its network of 18 cultivation facilities in six states. The company also operates 83 retail cannabis stores.

“Getting that real estate was a big hurdle, … but fortunately we presented and got the votes for zoning approval,” Hercules said.

Hercules compared the state’s cannabis business licensing process to a “Rubik’s Cube,” saying it was a challenge to navigate the various requirements, including creating a workforce development plan and finding a location in the proper census tract.

“You move one color and you’ve got to keep shifting it around to kind of check all these boxes before you can even decide on a site,” Hercules said.

Hercules is also eyeing entry into the retail space. She said she’s already submitted plans to the state to open two “Lady Jane” adult-use dispensaries as equity joint venture spinoffs to CT Cultivation Solutions. Hercules envisions Lady Jane as a “luxury” dispensary brand with a boutique-style feel that highlights other Black businesses and entrepreneurs in the state.

“They’re pretty much moving in unison, but if things go as planned, our retail stores will open before the cultivation business because of how long the cultivation (site) will take to build,” Hercules said.

Hercules and Ray said their respective cultivation businesses will introduce more product variety in the market.

Connecticut has only four companies producing cannabis products for the adult-use and medical markets.

“Once more cultivation comes online, I do think we’re going to start seeing more excitement in the industry because there’s going to be a diverse product and brand mix,” Hercules said.

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