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Entrepreneur scraps plan to use Vt. prison site as cannabis farm

  • David Muller, left, and state Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, right, tour the former Windsor prison on Jan. 16. Muller was showing a group of state officials and lawmakers around the campus of the closed Southeast State Correctional Facility, where he had wanted to operate a cooperative for farmers to grow and process hemp. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Published: 3/29/2019 9:51:41 PM
Modified: 3/29/2019 10:13:42 PM

WINDSOR — Woodstock entrepreneur David Muller has pulled his plans to use the former prison site in Windsor as a cannabis farm and laboratory because he couldn’t come to a financial agreement with the state.

“The numbers just didn’t work,” Muller said on Thursday. He might have been able to use the property if he had been able to buy it, he said, but he was told he couldn’t.

“The current state of the site is not really conducive to leasing because the facility is special purpose and in disrepair,” Muller said.

The 118-acre fenced property has 27 buildings on it, many of them in poor condition.

Muller said the capital costs and effort needed to make it useable “are prohibitive when combined with a proposed lease which would be market rate for a clean, immediately useable facility.”

The state of Vermont has owned the Windsor prison property for 100 years. It was developed into a prison in the 1930s, and at one point housed 100 inmates and had a dairy barn, slaughterhouse, wood shop and license plate manufacturing facility. It was deemed too expensive to operate and closed in late 2017.

In December, the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services released a report for lawmakers on the property that valued it at $1.1 million but said there were no immediate practical uses for it.

“The State currently lacks the critical mass of programmatic need to operate the facility in a cost-effective manner,” the report said.

The Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services is responsible for maintaining the property at an estimated cost of $215,000 per year. BGS is authorized to lease it, but any sale of the property would have to be approved by lawmakers. Chris Cole, commissioner of Buildings and General Services, said Muller wrote to lawmakers expressing interest in buying the property but never heard back.

Lawmakers from the House Institutions Committee had toured the property with Muller in January and the Senate Agriculture Committee later invited him in for a hearing about his project. Muller is known in the medical world as one of the people who developed Lasik eye surgery through Summit Technology Inc., a former Massachusetts company. He later started two other ophthalmic companies. In 2002, he started a water buffalo dairy company in Woodstock.

Muller said he had hoped to buy the property because it didn’t make sense to invest in improving it, including demolishing several buildings, under a lease. The state wasn’t in a position to help Muller make that investment, Cole said.

“He wanted state investment to tear down the dairy barn and to potentially do demolition of four buildings, and we don’t have the money to do that,” he said. “How does he pay for it, and what do we give him in return? It didn’t appear to be financially viable for him.”

Muller, who lives in Boston and Woodstock, testified to lawmakers this winter about a plan that included growing hemp, building a laboratory and operating a co-op for hemp growers. He told lawmakers the facility could produce one ton a day of dry hemp material. He also planned to process the hemp into CBD, or cannabidiol, a product of the hemp plant that is widely believed to have health-giving benefits.

On Thursday, he said the co-op part of the plan will go ahead.

“Our co-op group keeps getting larger, and there will be a lot of planting this year,” Muller said. “I am still looking for the right situation but plans for a large facility are paused until I can really see a good way forward.”

Tom Marsh, the Windsor town manager, said he was included on much of the correspondence between Cole and Muller throughout the negotiations. Marsh and others in Windsor would like to see the property used.

“We had always been supportive of the concept,” he said of Mueller’s plan. “The idea of a commercial facility, taking it out of the state’s hands, it seemed like there would be the opportunity for quality jobs.”

But he added the market for cannabis and the compound CBD that is derived from it is new, with an uncertain future.

“The town wasn’t in a position to strongly support rushing into this market without having much more detail, particularly on the regulatory side,” he said. “We were encouraged that David seemed to have the financial wherewithal and expertise to do this, but we certainly understand the concern on both sides.”

Cole said on Thursday that the department will start marketing the property for lease later this spring.

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