A Cannabis Business in the Opportunity Zone

Mike Sassano

The Opportunity Zone Expo Podcast
A Cannabis Business in the Opportunity Zone


Jack: Welcome back everybody to the OZExpo Podcast. I'm your host, Jack Heald, joining me today is Mike Sassano, the president, founder, the “Big Cheese” of Solaris Farms. Welcome, Mike.

Mike: Nice to be here.

Jack: Well, one of the first things I like to ask all my guests is a who they are and where they came from. So, Mike, let's do that. Who are you? Who is Mike Sassano and where did you come from?

Mike: Well, originally came from Cleveland, Ohio. Had a life like a Rolling Stone, I guess after that I went to school up in Boston. Ended up in New York as a trader, and was living in Europe for a big part of my adult life. And then ultimately ended up in the cannabis industry, in the early stages of this industry and excelling at it to a point where I ended up here in Las Vegas, developing Solaris Farms.

Jack: Well, we're going to, we're going to dive into that deeply, but I'm interested in folks who lived overseas. Where in Europe did you live and how long were you there?

Mike: I lived in Monaco since about the year 2000. I still have residency out there and I'll be going back there developing the cannabis market also.

Jack: I know zip zapa do about the cannabis market outside of Amsterdam, anywhere outside of the U.S. is there a developing market there as well?

Mike: Well, 14 -- and my numbers may be off because it's constantly changing -- countries are able to buy and consume medical marijuana in Europe. I think it's eight countries you're allowed to grow cannabis in Europe. And when I'm talking cannabis, I'm talking THC as opposed to just hemp. So, if you get into the hemp, that's much larger. It's all over.

Jack: Quick question about the cannabis business. A lot of folks who get into the cannabis business get into it initially because they find that the benefits, personally, are so profound. And I'm not talking about the financial benefits. I mean the medical benefits. Was that your experience, or was this primarily a business venture on your part?

Mike: Everybody has their stories of people that had been sick, especially with cancer, people who have nervous system disorders, and people that just generally have a pain. And I have personal experience in my life with my close relatives and family in the cancer area, in the nervous system area. Even personally myself with pain, due to things that happen as you get older. So, you know, it's very much the holistic approach. And of course, I treat this like a business. We’re here to help people.

Jack: So, let's talk about Solaris Farms. Tell us about the business. I did some reading on it. It looks like you've got quite an extensive set of services and products that you offer there.

Mike: Basically this is a cultivation and, and in Las Vegas we would call it production, which means producing the oils. Our licensed facility in Nevada is a high-tech desert greenhouse. It's very unique. Just about everybody who's walked in here, has given a “wow” factor. The actual design came from the deserts of Kuwait where they had an upper shade system that protects the structure, during the hot deserts and they have similar weather patterns as us where it could get up to 115 F plus and could get as cold at night down to freezing.

Also many of the different design features here from antimicrobial floors to a central spline that contains contaminates to Bostrom fan. The equipment that was designed for this facility, really lends to a fully automated system, we are as much automated without the robots, I should say.

Jack: Now it looks like, as I do my research, that you guys do more than just production. There is something called "brand campus" that I was fascinated with. What's the brand campus story there, with Solaris Farms.

Mike: Right. So, primarily were into the cultivation here. Making our genetics. But on the other side, there's brands that act as partners to use. Or tenants or however you want to look at the symbiotic relationship. And they come and they work in our space and they promote their brands. So, right now in Solaris Farms, there's Bloom, out of California and Yellow Lemon and they make their oils and their vape line out of our facility.

Jack: So, let's steer this conversation in the direction of the Opportunity Zone business and how Solaris Farms and your business -- in particular your expertise -- dovetails with the Opportunity Zone program.

Mike: Right. So, Solaris Farms happens to be in the Opportunity Zone, one of the Opportunity Zones of Nevada. When the a heat map came out, we took a look and sure enough, there we are. And, as you know, it's very new, Opportunity Zones. We just got a whole other set of regulations that just came out. The key is looking at cannabis and how high-tech greenhouses and the actual tax ramifications on that can benefit investors or the investment as a whole.

And the way it looks, when you look at the cannabis business industry, you buy your piece of land, sometimes it's a very expensive piece of land. and then you have to develop that land. And then you have to operate and build an apparently sophisticated building to keep the environment under control in order to grow your plants. In doing so, you actually qualify to be an Opportunity Zone investment and defer your, taxes up to 10 years and the pay no taxes even. This is actually a developed piece of real estate at a bonafide investment.

And it's also an operating entity. So, if you look at the structure of hotels or if you look at the structure of casinos in Vegas, you have one group that owns and operates and builds and develops the land and you have one group that operates. They can actually be both the same group and have multiple ways of achieving revenue and also tax savings.

Jack: So, are you offering space in Solaris Farms for ongoing businesses? Are you trying to replicate this in other locations?

Mike: Well, right now we're in a full buildout of the rest of the land. Phase one has been completed and we're in design and permitting with the city. On the entire build out and for the cultivation that will be operated under the Solaris farms, let's call it envelope. And as far as production goes, we are looking at increasing our production space to 35,000-square-feet to host different brands.

And it's quite possible that our current brand may want to take all of that space. We just don't know at this point. It's a little early in our planning, but the idea is to provide brands access to the Vegas market, both on a marketing scale level, on a product level where they trim the product to operate, but also from a real estate and licensing level, where they can work with a company that has a legal Nevada state license.

Jack: Tell us a little bit about the cannabis business. I know in the Arizona there is some sort of legislation that prevents a vertical integration between the production side and the retail side. There's gotta be some sort of Chinese wall between the two of them. Do you have a similar situation in Nevada?

Mike: No. You can, you can be vertically integrated where you own cultivation, production and dispensary and even we have another licensed distribution. So you can actually own all those licenses, distribute, grow, produce your product and sell it through your dispensary all-in-one. But, the only thing that's segregated Chinese wall is lab testing, between all of those groups. And that's pretty logical.

Jack: Now, you're probably into areas where I don't know enough to even ask intelligent questions. Talk about the lab testing.

Mike: Well, Nevada is considered one of the most rigid well-designed testing programs in the United States today. As a matter of fact, many states are copying their foot print. I can say in a really simple way that Nevada has taken the step to really look at this from food industry perspectives and from when central legality comes. What other agencies are going to regulating and how. So, that could be from a FDA-style standpoint or from an agricultural standpoint, they really take a look around all the different standpoints in order to have the lab testing, and the requirements to grow under those. It is positive by the way, for the industry, and as difficult as if for some growers, this is a very positive step in the industry, getting good product and reliable product to the consumers.

Jack: Let's talk a little bit about the Opportunity Zone program itself as it relates to your kind of business.

Mike: Well, we definitely try to explain to people because it's very new to everybody and even to ourselves. We try not to get into tax advice, persay. That's not what we're here to do. We are in the Opportunity Zones. And I tried to explain to everybody in a very simple way how to look at this. If you have the ability to buy a land or a business, and let's find a very simple business like owning a home, owning condos and you rent those out or something to that nature. Well, you can expect in a market like today's that you can achieve five to maybe 8% on a fairly regular basis. These are highly commoditized and liquid investments where you could sell those depending on their size to other groups. So you can achieve over 10 years a fairly nice return. When you go to the cannabis industry and you look at the evaluations and the growth in this industry,the growth still to come in this industry.

I think worldwide -- and I'm just going to throw a number, don't hold me to this one -- but everybody has a different number, but I think they gave a number of $185 billion as a worldwide market coming up in this industry. Well, when you think of that kind of growth, you can easily say, hey, it's possible to achieve 20% or 30% returns annually on your money. And that's where the significance comes. If you are able to use an Opportunity Zone, to shield yourself and benefit from that kind of growth.

Jack: Whatare some of the unanswered questions in the Opportunity Zone for somebody such as yourself who's actually got an ongoing business operation? What are the open questions that you're hoping still get resolved?

Mike: Well, there are so many. When does the time of that opportunity where you can take it back or do you have the possibility to roll your investments over and how does that timing look?

How does that timing coincide with how the actual rules are? It's pretty complex, and I try to just always keep things down to the simplest form. What would we be looking for when we do these investments? What kind of documentation do we need to file now, today in order to make sure our investors, or potential investors, are secure that they're going to be, accepted and that this is how this program is going to run. And everyone always will ask you, especially if you're looking for investors: “Well, are you guaranteeing that? Are you advising me on that?”

No, there's no guarantees. You can't advise anybody. That's a talk with your professionals in your account. Does that make sure that this is the right investment for you specifically? And whatever your investment is that you're selling or putting into the company sale proceeds?

Jack: No. Are you actively soliciting investment in Solaris Farms?

Mike: Solaris is special in its own way. It's a very small group of investors. Extremely small as a matter of fact. And we're lucky for investors to step up. We are interested to figure out exactly how the opportunities can benefit us and how it can benefit the next possible investor. Okay. No, we don't actively go out and solicit funds is the long and short of that answer.

Jack: Okay. Lots of folks have been saying, “Hey, cannabis would be quite an opportunity, but I haven't run into anybody who's doing it.” Lots of folks are saying, “Gosh, there should be some kind of ongoing business concerns,” but they're very few of those. So, you sit in a unique niche here, Mike, as somebody who's actually got the ongoing business in the Opportunity Zone in the cannabis business, you may be a niche of one, at least as far as I can tell right now.

Mike: So, somebody told me that recently. You said it in a completely different way. Yeah, I see what you're saying. It's a little different.

Jack: Well, it's the best kind, you know, if the Opportunity Zone program is to succeed, at the end of the day what it has to do is generate jobs. You know, that's really what it's all about. It's good to build buildings and develop real estate. But if we've got all that and we don't have an increase in jobs, and an increase in economic activity in these underserved zones, then the program itself hasn't succeeded. And you know, this intersection between the cannabis industry and the Opportunity Zone program just seems perfect. The other one that I think somebody is going to need to get ahold of is fourth generation nuclear. So, if you can figure out a way to integrate fourth generation nuclear with cannabis and the Opportunity Zones, I think you've got a home run.

Mike: Okay. It was pretty amazing. There's a great article that just came out. Cannabis, I think they said touches 18 different groups that's seriously could benefit off of joining into the cannabis movement. Everything from biotech to pharma, from nonalcoholic or alcoholic beverages. It really showed how cannabis is so diverse. Health and wellness to tourism, agritourism, the industry touches so many places. I can't imagine that somebody can find a nexus between that and your nuclear desire, but I'd have to think about it more.

Jack: We'll drop that one and move on. Obviously you've got a diverse background in finance and entrepreneurship. This may be a really obvious question, but it might be fun. What kinds of things really get you excited? What gets you up out of the bed in the morning and gets the blood pumping and eager to meet the new day,

Mike: I like the fact that I hear stories constantly on people that are being helped. Not just by myself, but everybody in this industry. Like I said, cancer is very important on many levels. I don't want to go personally into the cancer stories, but there's very current and past real examples and people are getting alternative ways to help themselves. I still encourage people to always do what normal doctors do, but there are alternatives that could help or at least be symbiotic in relation to it. And you know, I have a lot of people that rely upon me. So, I need to get up in the morning and, and take care of them all in some way.

Jack: So, let's flip it around. We're all human. There's stuff that drives us crazy. What's something that drives you out of your mind? If you were king of the world for a day, but only one day, what would you change?

Mike: Sometimes I'm king of my own little microcosm, but the one thing that really drives me nuts is just lying. I just can't take it. It’s just one of those things that if people told me the truth, okay, we made a mistake, here it is, I'll work with you to fix it. But if you keep lying to me and I can't figure out why, how we could fix a mistake and I just get to a point where I have to figure out if you're lying and then I have to find out myself how to fix it. That's almost inexcusable, if it keeps repeating itself, that's, that one really gets me.

Jack: One more question. What are you best at?

Mike: Working really hard.

Jack: Are you one of those genetic freaks who has the ability to work 20 hours a day and live on four hours of sleep, for days and weeks and months at a time.

Mike: I'm not sure if I want to tell you this, but I don't sleep very much. I don't know the exact numbers. I don't know why it is. I'm hoping to improve that, but it's some kind of strange reality.

Jack: You know what, I know that that's actually fairly common for extremely high performers, just at a physiological level. They tend to be able to operate for longer periods of time on less sleep than us normal people. Okay.

Mike: It's completely bizarre. My Fitbit tells a story that's quite scary to people when I show it, but I'm like, no, I'm fine and I'm still smiling and I'm happy.

Jack: That's astonishing. I think I want to see your Fitbit report because it sounds fun.

Mike: You do have to see it.

Jack: Well, Mike, I appreciate your time today. This has been a really different kind of conversation for us. On the OZExpo podcast. If folks want to get ahold of you or find out more about Solaris Farms, what's the best way to do that?

Mike: You could just write to executives@solarisfarms.org and whether it's me or it's somebody else, we try to get back to everybody we can. We can't get back to everybody, but you know, we do our best.

Jack: And I will remind our listeners that that information will be available on the podcast, a podcast website where you can pick that up. You don't have to write it down. Well, Mike, any last words before we sign off?

Mike: No, this was quite fun. I look forward to the OZExpo and make sure your come watch me speak.

Jack: Hopefully I'll be able to do that. I have a suspicion I'm going to be doing a whole bunch of interviews that week, so I'm going to do my best to get out and actually…

Mike: So come out to Solaris Farms.

Jack: Oh, isn't it in Vegas? 

Mike: That's right. And it's only 10 minutes from the strip. So, it's probably, you should do your podcast and some interviews from here and I would have a whole other picture.

Jack: You know what? I'm going to follow up off the air with you cause that might be really, really cool.

Mike: It would be really cool.

Jack: I appreciate it. I appreciate the invitation. Well, for Mike's Sassano of Solaris Farms, I'm Jack Healed. This is the OZExpo podcast. Thanks for listening and we will talk to you next time.

Announcer: This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal tax or investment advice. For specific recommendations, please consult with your financial, legal, or tax professional.

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