Last May, National City became the first municipality in the county — where medical marijuana dispensaries and retail sales proliferate — to approve marijuana lounges for the consumption of the drug.
In a unanimous vote last week, the city voted to approve three cannabis-business development agreements, including a request from Sessions By the Bay to open a weed lounge, which would be located in the city's tourist commercial zone on property owned by the Sycuan tribe.
Pedro Garcia, National City's economic development manager, said Thursday that Sessions by the Bay had essentially been fully approved by the city and that its owners could move ahead with the building-permit process.
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On Monday, Adam Day, who is the chief administrative officer of the Sycuan Tribal Government, confirmed to NBC 7 that a tribally controlled financial entity, the Sycuan Tribal Development Corporation, had partnered with Sessions By the Bay on the project. That entity owns and controls most of the city block on which Sessions, which Adams referred to as a joint venture, is sited, including the building Sessions will be located in, as well as a nearby Best Western Hotel and the Kimball Coastal Eatery next door to the cannabis cafe's location.
"The Sycuan Tribal Development Corporation (STDC) is honored that our partnership to operate a cannabis lounge and retail store at our property in National City was unanimously approved by the city council," STDC President Josh Muse is quoted in part as saying in a statement sent to NBC 7.
Sessions By the Bay's Alex Ayon, a San Diego native who still lives in the city, told NBC 7 that he was "super excited — onto the fun stuff: designing and construction." He said the timeline for the project calls for a December 2023 opening of the nearly 16,000-square-foot, two-story lounge at 700 Bay Marina Drive, the former location of California College San Diego.
It's not yet known what the maximum capacity of the lounge will be, though there are 130 parking spots at the location of the cafe, which is just off Interstate 5 at the Mile of Cars Way exit — close enough for a sign visible from the freeway, Alex believes, Alex said that Kimball Coastal would provide food to Sessions By the Bay's patrons but that there are no plans currently to collaborate with the hotel.
Alex also confirmed to NBC 7 that Sessions By the Bay had partnered with Sycuan — which also owns the U.S. Grant Hotel; the Hotel Solamar, in the Gaslamp; and the Singing Hills Golf Resort, in El Cajon; as well as their casino resort in El Cajon — and had signed a lease with the SDTC.
"This property happens to be on Kumeyaay land," Alex said. "The war on drugs has negatively impacted communities of color disproportionately, and that includes Native American communities, so it's great to have Sycuan's leadership and participation in this industry."
Sessions By the Bay was the only applicant for a lounge license.
SESSIONS BY THE BAY
Alex told NBC 7 earlier this year that he would be operating Sessions By the Bay with his wife, Pearl Ayon.
"In this business, there are not very many female owners, especially minority, Latino owners," Alex said, adding that his wife's family is Mexican, and his is from Colombia and Brazil. "We're both born here. She's first-generation."
Alex, who is 39, has worked in the cannabis industry since 2009 and has owned a dispensary in San Diego in the past.
"Pearl Ayon and Alex [Ayon] have over 10 years of experience in the cannabis industry and are viewed as thought leaders and operators with integrity," SDTC's Muse also said in the statement sent to NBC 7. "They place safety, customer satisfaction and legal compliance at the top of all they do. Together with their team, we will make Sessions By the Bay a leader throughout this region and beyond in the burgeoning legal cannabis market."
He formerly worked in the mortgage sector. He said that the lounge's name, Sessions By the Bay, name refers to a social "smoking" session. Alcohol, he said, will not be available at Sessions By the Bay. The cannabis cafe could employ as many as 100 people by the time it opens, Alex believes
National City has concerns, of course, that all the cannabis businesses — two others were also approved in Tuesday night's vote — will operate in a way to protect the health and safety of the public and that they will generate tax revenue for the city to support the general fund.
While the couple has spent more than six figures on the project so far, they still have a long financial road to travel.
"In total, we're figuring it's going to be a $4 million project," Alex said in July. 'To get it open, that includes tenant improvements, that includes the investment into marketing, inventory, and there's a significant investment in the work force — training and the hiring. We're intending to hire at least a majority — at least 60% of our workforce — from National City, National City residents."
As part of their applications in Phase 2, National City wanted to see what value the businesses could bring to the community besides just running the business well, Alex told NBC 7.
"We intend to work with a lot of National City nonprofits and community goodwill organizations," Alex said, adding that "a percentage of our profits will be invested back into the community, specifically for youth programs, substance-abuse type programs and a few others."
NATIONAL CITY'S MARIJUANA ORDINANCE
Approval of the South Bay city's ordinance, which permits retail sales as well, came last year after six people spoke in opposition during the public comment period of the city council meeting. In the end, the council approved Ordinance No. 2021 by a vote of 4-1, with Councilman Ron Morrison in the minority. He had proposed a motion to proceed with the other elements of the ordinance but rezone the lounges to bring them in line with other businesses.
"This is an opportunity to help bring new business in but also to think creatively," National City mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis said last year.
The cannabis lounges can only be opened in National City’s Tourist Commercial Zone, which is a small irregularly shaped area west of Interstate 5, south of Bay Marina Drive, east of Tidelands Avenue and in the area around the marina.
Currently, the area is mostly occupied by parking lots and industrial buildings. Per the ordinance: “ 'Consumption lounge’ means an area that is part of the premises of a state-licensed, locally permitted commercial cannabis retail business.” At this point, that doesn't appear to present a lot of options for locations.
"What it looks like is: When a person walks in, they have an employee that will walk them through the product, the level, the intensity, whether it is an edible or another type of product then they will have the opportunity to consume it," Sotelo-Solis said.
The city, not surprisingly, had lots to say about the specifics of the lounges, namely:
- Alcohol and tobacco consumption in the lounges is prohibited
- Patrons must be 21 or older
- Cannabis consumption cannot be seen from outside the lounge
- No BYOC – patrons have to buy their cannabis on-site
- Lounges can sell food
- A security guard must be working during the hours of operation
- Approval of permits is dependent upon an “anti-drugged driving plan”
National City’s ordinance went into force June 3, 2021, 30 days after its passage.
When Sessions By the Bay opens in National City, it will be the first in the county, though not the state. Weed bars are already open in Los Angeles and other cities as well.
At a federal level, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Cannabis is legal for recreational use in 15 states and the nation’s capital, while medical marijuana is legal in three dozen states.