In this Dec. 13, 2017, file photo, James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant growing indoors in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Cars filled the parking lot at Northern Maine Flower — the first medical marijuana shop on Presque Isle’s Main Street — even during the coronavirus pandemic when stay-at-home orders were in force. And by fall, that business will have a competitor — Star City Wellness — only two minutes up the road.

Marijuana is emerging as a booming industry in a city often associated with rural conservatism. City leaders say there has been keen interest in developing pot shops since January, when the Presque Isle City Council unanimously approved the production and sale of recreational marijuana.

Though it’s still early in the game, the sizable interest by marijuana businesses in Presque Isle shows the appeal of the cannabis industry outside its urban base in cities like Lewiston, Portland and Bangor. And for Presque Isle — a city that has experienced issues with population decline, outmigration and business turnover — many city leaders say any industry that brings jobs to the Star City is worth welcoming.

City Manager Martin Puckett said city leaders are encouraged by interest from marijuana business owners, and that prospective entrepreneurs have reacted positively to the city’s marijuana ordinance.

Presque Isle Director of Economic and Community Development Galen Weibley said he has been fielding calls and meeting with people interested in starting cannabis shops since January — so far totaling about a half dozen.

“There’s definitely a surge in interest in medical marijuana,” Weibley said. “Throughout the downtown area, especially.”

Many interested businesses seem to want to lay down roots as medical marijuana shops before converting to a recreational shop later, Weibley said.

Northern Maine Flower owner Benny Carrasco and Star City Wellness co-owner Joe Pelkey said they are interested in selling recreational marijuana in their shops, but they want to focus on medical sales at the moment.

Presque Isle’s recreational marijuana ordinance allows medical marijuana shops to transition to recreational stores in the same locations if they pay a $500 fee and receive permission from the city.

There are no recreational marijuana stores in Maine, and the state has yet to issue any licenses for them. Recreational shops — initially slated for spring — have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The virus had postponed vital decisions from municipalities on approving testing facilities and recreational shops, the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy said.

This is not the first time marijuana will be sold in shops in Aroostook County. There are already medical marijuana stores in Aroostook County, including Full Bloom Cannabis in Grand Isle and Fort Kent, Safe Alternatives in Caribou and TW Cannabis in Madawaska.

Yet, with two shops confirmed to be on Presque Isle’s Main Street by the fall, it will be the first time cannabis will become a common sight in Aroostook County’s economic center.

Despite the economic inroads, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and continues to be viewed negatively by many Mainers, especially those who lean more conservative. Four years ago, the referendum legalizing recreational marijuana passed by only 4,000 votes.

A YouGov poll from May found that 47 percent of 133 Mainers polled thought legalization was more of a success than a failure, the lowest among those polled from nine states that have legalized the drug.

Even some of the opposition acknowledges there are many ready to spend money on cannabis products in Maine — even in rural sparsely populated locations like Presque Isle.

Many in Presque Isle who support bringing the cannabis industry north — including City Council Chair Kevin Freeman — argue for it on economic terms divorced from the squeamishness some have on the subject. They say the Star City should try to grab a piece of what’s becoming a billion-dollar industry.

Views on the issue have shifted in recent years. Presque Isle stood firmly against marijuana legalization in 2016, with 60 percent of voters choosing to keep the drug illegal for recreational use. But in recent city votes on recreational and medical stores, there has been virtually no opposition.

Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce Executive Director LaNiece Sirois said it is important to look at marijuana shops as any other industry: filling a niche for a product that needs to be met locally.

Those in The County who are nervous about pot shops should be reassured about the amount of red tape the businesses need to go through before setting up business, Sirois said. Presque Isle’s marijuana ordinance requires approval from the code enforcement officer and police chief, among other requirements.

“I know it’s a different kind of business than people are used to,” Sirois said. “But I don’t think it’s going to change the culture.”

Sirois said cannabis businesses that move to Presque Isle will likely have a consistent clientele. She also said that the CBD products sold by marijuana shops — which do not contain the mind-altering chemical THC — was emerging as a popular alternative to other medications.

Yet, because of the presence of medical marijuana shops in other parts of The County — including just north in Caribou — she was skeptical that Presque Isle would become a central hub for marijuana.

“Do I think that someone is going to move here just because we have a dispensary? No,” Sirois said.

Pelkey heralded the medical effects of marijuana, but plainly said he started the business because of the success it had seen around the country. He saw the transition from a convenience store like JP Market & Deli to a medical marijuana shop as a natural one reflecting changing market trends.

He said the industry is a well-regulated one — far apart from the criminal underworld some associate with street drugs.

“We’re not drug dealers,” Pelkey said. “We’re a respectable place and we are going to teach the public about the benefits of it.”

Shortly after the council approved a license for Star City Wellness on July 1, Freeman said he hoped to see Presque Isle’s cannabis industry continue to grow.

“I’m looking forward to seeing these businesses, or any other businesses, open in Presque Isle,” Freeman said. “The laws of supply and demand decide who lives and dies with these things.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy’s role in approving testing and retail facilities in towns and cities.