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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Tokio Weigh Station’s cannabis shop a literal sign of the times

TOKIO WEIGH STATION – It looms above the freeway about 45 miles west of Spokane: a literal sign of the times.

It used to say RESTAURANT.

Now it says CANNABIS.

For more than 30 years, Templin’s Country Corner has been run by a couple, Gary and Vernette Templin, as an oasis for gas and food between Ritzville and Spokane. This year, it will be taken over by a Kennewick couple, Steve and Jessica Lee, who have been running a marijuana store in a building on the property since November 2016.

While the bones of the enterprise will remain gas sales, an RV park and a restaurant, a new focus on marijuana tourism is what the Lees hope will keep the landmark freeway stop in business going forward. It’s one of the most visible examples of the way that legalized marijuana, and the economic opportunity around it, has changed rural Washington in ways that confound tradition and expectations.

The freeway stop could eventually become, Steve Lee hopes, “a cannabis Leavenworth” – one built directly on a foundation of the old-fashioned freeway-exit truck stop.

“Everyone knows where it’s at,” Lee said this week. “Everyone’s stopped there at least a couple times. Everyone’s parents stopped there. A lot of people remember when it was a Stuckey’s.”

The truck-stop weed store is just one of the ways that Lee is upending convention when it comes to the newly legal industry. He recently was sworn in as a new member of the Kennewick City Council, following an election in which his identity as “the pot guy” was brought up continuously. He defeated an incumbent and was chosen as mayor pro tem by his fellow council members this week.

All this in a city and county that have put moratoriums on new pot enterprises.

For the Templins, selling the Country Corner means a chance to retire. Not long ago, a spiffy new Love’s truck stop opened in Ritzville and added to the many challenges of making a go of it out at the Tokio exit, which even Gary Templin calls “the middle of nowhere.”

If the Templins had reservations about bringing a newly legalized marijuana business onto their property, they have overcome them. Vernette said that she has come to know people who get relief for medical problems from cannabis products, and that the Lees have been reliable tenants – renovating the outbuilding that was a former fruit stand and paying the rent on time.

And Gary, who is 75, has seen some of his assumptions overturned as well.

“We’re amazed at the customers they get,” he said. “I thought they’d be long-haired hippie types, but they’re older than me. And I’m pretty damn old.”

‘Time to help somebody’

Gary Templin grew up in Ritzville in a family whose name is well-known on a variety of regional businesses. His parents ran the Circle T restaurant in Ritzville, and he later was involved in the North Shore Motel in Coeur d’Alene with his uncle, Bob Templin. Duane Hagadone would buy out the hotel in a hostile takeover in 1983 and build the Coeur d’Alene Resort at the site.

A few years later, Gary and Vernette bought the gas station at the Tokio exit, which was then a Stuckey’s truck stop. The Country Corner sold gas, operated a store with snacks and drinks, and served hamburgers and hearty breakfasts in the cafe. There were a handful of sites for RVs and tent camping.

For anyone traveling on Interstate 90 in the past three decades, it has been a familiar site and last resort for gas, food and bathroom stops.

Gary Templin found certain similarities between the seasonal nature of his new venture and his former one.

“It’s a lot like Coeur d’Alene was,” he said. “It’s big in the summertime. You wonder what you’re doing out here in the winter.”

In recent years, he has been trying to put up a bigger sign farther east, to catch the eyes of travelers a little earlier and try to draw them off the freeway, but he’s been unable to work around regulatory obstacles with the state. Between that, changes in the trucking industry and the nearby Love’s, and the fact that the Templins have been eying retirement, they found themselves open to the idea of trying something new when the Lees approached them in 2016.

Their proposal was to renovate a small outbuilding on the gas station property that had been a fruit stand in past years. That worked well enough that they agreed to sell the operation to the Lees later this year.

Gary Templin said part of his motivation has been to help young business owners get established.

“We had help” getting started, he said. “I felt it was maybe time for me to help somebody get their start.”

‘We grew, we grew, we grew’

Steve Lee said he and his wife found themselves going into Washington’s newly legal marijuana industry out of need: He’d been laid off from his job as a museum fundraiser, they were couch surfing and they needed an income.

With a nest egg of $5,000, they opened the first Green2Go medical marijuana business outlet in Kennewick in 2012 and evolved into recreational cannabis after legalization. Like the marijuana industry statewide, it took off and hasn’t slowed down.

“We opened our store and we grew, we grew, we grew, we grew,” Lee said. “We drank from the fire hose as well as we could.”

They moved into a new space in Kennewick relatively quickly and remain the only weed store in town – because the city banned them. The Lees then looked to the Tokio spot as a different kind of venture. With their town store, the regular clientele are nearby and shop frequently. The Tokio store is a different dynamic – slow to grow and reliant upon the “roadside attraction” nature of the location.

“It’s a lot more like selling cars than selling produce,” Lee said. “It’s a slow-build clientele.”

They replaced the RESTAURANT sign with the CANNABIS sign in March, and that began to boost business. In the year to come, as the Lees take over the rest of the business operation, they’re looking to build a kind of “companion business ecosystem” built around marijuana.

In the near term, that includes changes in the cafe – which they plan to turn into a gourmet grilled-cheese eatery – and continuing the gas and RV business. Lee said they’re considering putting up some tiny houses as a “millennial-friendly” draw and, if all goes well, looking eventually to the possibility of having a festival space or even a drive-in movie theater, all built around the core business.

“That cannabis store is just an excellent anchor tenant,” Lee said.

Much of the future plan will depend on how well the business does. The Lees have been investing heavily in their stores in the past couple of years and are hopeful those investments will pay off.

The Templins, meanwhile, are looking forward to a retirement and passing on their business in a way they might never have imagined when they first bought that Stuckey’s back in 1986.

“I’ve learned a lot in the past year,” Vernette said.

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