CHELSEA, MA — “I never smoked in my life,” Marvin Gilmore says with a chuckle. Gilmore’s sitting in a conference room at Western Front, Chelsea’s first cannabis dispensary, where he serves on the Board of Managers. The irony isn’t lost on him.
“If I [smoked] I wouldn’t be sitting here today at 96 years old,” he says.
Marijuana is the latest front in Gilmore’s lifelong fight for justice. The grandson of slaves, Gilmore left school at 17 to fight in World War II. He returned a highly decorated war hero, but instead of reverence, he was greeted with hostility.
Here was a man who had stormed the beaches at Normandy – one of 1,800 Black soldiers to do so – but couldn’t get a bank loan.
“I told the loan officer I was going to own my own bank,” Gilmore said. “He laughed in my face.”
But Gilmore never just talked. He got that from his mother, who used to say to him, “Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Have you done it?” So he did it, helping found Unity Bank and Trust, the first Black-owned bank in New England.
And Gilmore continued doing it, interweaving his own history with greater Boston’s for the last half-century. He owned the Western Front nightclub, the Chelsea dispensary’s namesake, in Cambridge for nearly 50 years, opening it at a time when it was difficult for Black business owners to get a license.
He served on the Low Income Housing Commission, a precursor to the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency. As president and CEO of the Community Development Corporation of Boston, he drove development in the Southwest Corridor, Roxbury and the South End, playing pivotal roles in the revitalization of the Newmarket Industrial District and Crosstown Industrial Park.
Gilmore saw a dispensary as an economic opportunity for the historically low-income Chelsea. Western Front has about 35 employees, 90 percent of whom are of color. It received approval to operate under the state’s economic empowerment provision, which prioritizes minority populations that have been disproportionately impacted by anti-marijuana legislation.
“The money that comes out of it helps change the neighborhood,” Gilmore said. “For men who have been to prison, it provides jobs, training and takes them off the streets. It changes their perspective – they’re proud to be here.”
Dennis Benzan, who serves on the board with Gilmore, said the dispensary’s goal is to create a holistic workplace. They want to provide employees with a living wage, mentoring and financial literacy training to put them on a path to success. Statewide, only about 30 percent of dispensary employees are of color, despite being from populations where the War on Drugs had the greatest impact, Benzan said.
“What we heard the most [from employees] was how they’re suffering from depression and hopelessness,” Benzan said. “Their happiness is reflected in how they interact with customers.”
Benzan has his own connection to Chelsea. A Cambridge native born to a Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father, Chelsea was a Latino hub where he would come to breakdance as a teenager. He later ran for state Senate in the Middlesex and Suffolk District against Timothy Flaherty, who serves on the Western Front board alongside Benzan and Gilmore.
Growing up, Benzan witnessed firsthand how the War on Drugs and dwindling job opportunities affected his community. His predominantly Latino neighborhood was the first in Cambridge to have surveillance cameras installed. The factories closed and were replaced by an innovation economy that outsourced its workforce.
Getting Western Front off the ground was not easy – the qualifications for economic empowerment are rigorous, Benzan said. Of the 132 applicants, only two, including Western Front, have opened. The provision disqualifies prospective employees if they have convictions beyond marijuana-related charges, and Benzan said it is exceedingly rare to find someone with a single marijuana conviction.
The years-long process culminated in a grand opening ceremony Nov. 10 at Western Front’s 10,000-square-foot facility on Webster Avenue.
But the company – and Gilmore – aren’t done. In addition to selling adult-use cannabis products, the goal is ultimately to do cultivation and processing in-house. They are already planning an expansion to Cambridge next spring.
“You come this way but once,” Gilmore said. “You don’t get a second chance.”