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Questions, concerns remain as 'hempcrete' manufacturer leaves employees, city officials in the lurch

Posted at 6:44 PM, May 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-15 19:05:46-04

CLEVELAND — Before it could even get off the ground, a now-beleaguered proposed hemp manufacturing facility that was going to create 650 jobs in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood is still having trouble paying its recently hired employees. In addition to facing a federal lawsuit that seeks class action status, North Coast Natural Solutions and its CEO, Ty Williams, face pointed questions from city leaders that once supported the privately-financed project.

As News 5 first reported, dozens of former and current employees of North Coast Natural Solutions claimed that they have yet to be paid for several weeks’ worth of training ahead of the business' opening in June. Since early April, former and current employees said Williams offered a litany of excuses, including issues with IRS-related paperwork, bank accounts and the inability to secure the services of a human relations management company.

According to a federal lawsuitfiled by two employees of the company, including its former vice president of human relations, one of the excuses Williams offered to employees was that the bank couldn’t print checks because it was out of paper.

Despite the lingering questions and controversy, Williams has reportedly maintained that employees will be paid in full by the end of the week, according to text messages obtained by News 5. Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell said Williams better pay his employees, and soon.

“You’ve got to fight for your residents. That’s where I’m at,” Conwell said. “If [they aren’t paid by] Friday then we’re going to move forward to do what we have to do.”

Although the city has not put any public money into the project, Conwell said he will call for an investigation into North Coast Natural Solutions if employees aren’t paid by Friday. Making matters worse, many of the employees that did receive checks incurred overdraft penalties because their paychecks reportedly bounced.

“I am highly disappointed. I’m frustrated. I’m very, very disappointed,” Conwell said. “I’m not happy. I’m not happy at all. I want people to be paid so they can take care of their families and their children. It’s very, very painful, but we have to pass the paint on to Ty Wiliams if they are not getting paid.”

The project, which would be financed entirely by private investors, was viewed by many city and county leaders as a much-needed jolt to Glenville and its high unemployment rate. At the time, Williams said employees would be paid $17 an hour and would receive excellent health insurance benefits, free childcare and free transportation.

Over the next several months, multiple job fairs were held and approximately 180 people were hired. In order to prepare the new hires for their jobs, employees had to undergo several weeks of training at Cuyahoga Community College, including non-credit instruction on industrial safety in addition to shop math and measurement. Tri-C also offered the company, North Coast Natural Solutions LLC., space on campus to hold its own training sessions. Employees were to be paid for attending the training sessions. However, more than a month after the training started, most employees have yet to be paid, according to court records and interviews with numerous current and former employees.

When Williams company acquired the vacant industrial building on Kirby Ave. in 2018, he presented to the county land bank a visually impressive booklet that detailed the company’s business plan, projected revenues and alleged business partners. The “prospectus” said the International Centre for Cannabis Treatment was behind the project and had the backing of a major cannabis law firm, a renowned medical expert, and an attorney that has worked in the area of cannabis law. News 5’s repeated emails and phone calls to the individuals and companies listed in the prospectus have not been returned.

Prior to obtaining the property, Williams also secured the endorsement of several prominent pastors in the black community, in addition to County Executive Armond Budish and City Councilman Mike Polensek.

“I’m still trying to understand myself what’s going on,” Polensek said. “The verdict is still out. We’re going to see what’s going to happen. He’s indicated that this project is still a go. I don’t know. There is no city money. I didn’t commit any city money because again I always – on projects – waited to see how they pan out.”

Polensek said he endorsed the project after Williams’ presentation because the site of the project, the vacant building on Kirby Ave., is in the middle of the largely abandoned Eddy Road industrial park. The area has suffered severe disinvestment after many of the factories closed in the 1990s and 2000s. The proposed site of North Coast Natural Solutions sits across from the abandoned National Acme site, the poster child for industrial disinvestment in Cleveland. The greater Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods also have some of the highest unemployment rates in the city.

“I’m really sympathetic to the people who applied for the positions that now are waiting to get paid or are waiting to find out if they have a future or not,” Polensek said. “But at the end of the day, what did we start with? We started with an empty, abandoned building. Worst case scenario, what do I have? An empty, abandoned building. The poverty, the despair, the lack of opportunity in the greater Glenville community, to me it’s a no-brainer. If somebody came to me tomorrow and asked me to help in doing something in the community, I’d be there to help them. That’s my job. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

Polensek said he has had recent conversations with Williams, who assured the longtime councilman that the project remains on track. Because the Kirby Ave. site requires significant environmental remediation and renovation, Williams has reportedly told employees that operations are going to be moved to a building on Grand Ave. on an interim basis.

However, when News 5 contacted the owner of the building that is to serve as the temporary location, the owner said no formal agreement is in place. The owner said he would be open to such an arrangement though.

News 5’s repeated attempts to reach Williams have not been successful.

Despite the ominous start to North Coast Natural Solutions’ start in Cleveland, Polensek said he’s hopeful albeit concerned.

“As they tell us, this is a bump in the road. Some of the things that took place they acknowledge could have been avoided or should have been avoided,” Polensek said. “[Let’s hope] this project can go forward. If not, there are going to be a lot of people disappointed and a lot of people angry.”

Given the concerns expressed by North Coast Natural Solutions employees, Tri-C will be offering them career readiness sessions and a job fair at the Metropolitan Campus this month. Tri-C’s Career Center and Job Link Services office are both in the process of contacting the employees to offer assistance, the spokesman said.