Dispatch #5: Hey Massachusetts, 'expect visitors'

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Gary Kring has simple advice for a guy from Massachusetts.

“If I had the money myself, I would open a retail store there. Because you’re going to get the whole Eastern Seaboard coming.”

Kring knows what it feels like to be a marijuana mecca. He manages Emerald Fields, a recreational cannabis store in Manitou Springs, Colo., that due to Colorado law and El Paso County politics has a near monopoly. 

Pike’s Peak towers to the west, here at the edge of the front range of the Rockies. Given what he’s heard, Kring is bullish on cannabis business opportunities in Massachusetts. 

“I’d find a good location that’s close to the state border,” he told me, a recommendation not hard to apply throughout Berkshire County.

“You’d retire early. I’m just letting you know,” he said, breaking into laughter.

The other day, I found people streaming into his shop, just outside the Colorado Springs city limits. Most of the cars in the crowded lot at 27 Manitou Ave. sported Colorado plates, but I saw others from Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas.

What’s happened here suggests that if Massachusetts stays on track to begin retail cannabis sales next summer, the state will be a magnet for weed tourists, just as Kring suggests.

“You can expect visitors,” said Kenyon Jordan, who publishes the Westside Pioneer newspaper, online and in print.

Geography as destiny

Jordan’s been covering news in this area for 14 years, long enough to see the arrival of medical marijuana dispensaries and then, after January 2014, the opening of two Manitou Springs stores on the far side of Old Colorado City, the historic business district that is his main beat.

We spoke in his home office about how both developments have changed the community -- and more on that later in this series. 

But when it comes to getting an edge in the weed business, geography can be destiny.

A May story in the Colorado Springs Gazette, part of its “Pot on the Plains” series, described how Sedgwick, a town of 150 in the state’s northeast corner, was on the brink of dissolving its government in 2010. Then came medical marijuana -- and the start of a revival fed in large part by pot pilgrims from across the line in Nebraska. 

Both that state and Oklahoma tried to fight back against weed, suing Colorado in a case that rose to the Supreme Court. Justices declined to hear it. 

Today, the paper reported, Sedgwick is using marijuana tax money to get back on its feet. Though some residents were skeptical, or plain against the coming of cannabis, the money has softened stances, it seems. The owner of the Sedgwick Antique Inn now offers her customers a “smoke shack” out back. 

A similar boom is lifting the little town that’s home to the Emerald Fields and Maggie’s Farm retail stores here in central Colorado. 

While both Colorado Springs and the county banned recreational sales, the home-rule city of Manitou Springs said yes.

It was controversial, but doubters soon enough could see benefits. The town used its cannabis tax proceeds to qualify for federal money for a flood-control project. Just a few miles up in the foothills along Route 24, the urgency of that work remains apparent. 

Trees killed in the devastating 2012 Waldo Canyon fire ride ridgelines like porcupine quills. The blaze took weeks to control and killed two people, destroyed dozens of homes and burned 18,247 acres.

That’s 28.5 square miles, just one less than the size of Lanesborough. 

As Coloradans know, floods follow fires. They came in 2013 and 2014. By putting up money raised in large part from marijuana tax revenue, the city was able to do more than $60 million worth of flood-control work.

Seeing benefits

Karen Cullen is executive director of Old Colorado City Associates. I found her on her way back from running an errand downtown, across I-25.  

Though Cullen works to serve merchants along Colorado Avenue, she lives up in Manitou Springs. As a resident and taxpayer there, she saw the benefits of marijuana tax receipts.

“It’s probably the only thing that saved our town. The money was critical because we would not have gotten the FEMA grants,” she told me. 

 That’s a clear upside to weed, but we also talked about things she doesn’t like about legalization, including what she believes is wider access among young people.

“There are just a lot of things for people to think about,” Cullen said. 

Jordan, the Westside Pioneer editor, has been tracking it all, including Manitou’s brightening financial picture.

“In Manitou, that’s turned their economy around as a town,” Jordan told me. “It’s real money and they’re able to leverage it to get even more.”

Many I’ve met here seem to get a “you have no idea” look when I ask about the potential to make money in this business. 

I found James Van Diest inside The Hemp Center. He owns this medical marijuana dispensary on Colorado Avenue on the west side of the city, where low, brick buildings harken back to the old west. They’d fit right in on Great Barrington streets. 

Van Diest is a former real estate guy from the mountain town of Telluride who got clobbered in the Great Recession. After losing $3 million in the housing bust, he sold some condos and used the proceeds as capital to get into the medical cannabis field. 

He describes himself as a former “Mister Straight” and jock who woke up to the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Medical use helped him get off 20 pills for ailments dating back to shoulder and knee injuries.

“I asked, ‘What else have they been lying to me about?’” he told me.

Van Diest figures he’s losing $2,000 in potential revenue a day from all the people who come into his dispensary seeking recreational weed. Because he’s in the city of Colorado Springs, he has to send people just a few miles up the road, where Gary Kring is happy to do business with them. 

Though Colorado Springs seems locked in against retail sales, that might change over time. 

But for now, Van Diest estimates, based on tax revenues flowing to Manitou from the two shops, a place like Emerald Fields makes in a day what it takes his dispensary to do in a month -- somewhere in the range of $100,000.

Not surprisingly, prices at the Manitou shops are higher than in more competitive markets, including Pueblo and Denver, both about an hour by car.

OK with him

Kring, meantime, is happy as a clam. 

He knows the market could evolve to create more competition for Emerald Fields.

“It will change in time. For now, it puts us at a really nice advantage,” he said on a day off, while waiting at a shop for his car to be fixed. 

If Colorado Springs allowed retail marijuana sales, customers might not make it all the way up Manitou Avenue, now under construction, to reach his building, with its bold “RETAIL MARIJUANA” sign.

“Honestly, we get a lot of people from out of state. And people are moving to this state for marijuana,” he said. 

Lots of those making the trip are over the age of 50. This self-styled “cannaboutique” resembles any high-end retail shop.

Kring spent 12 years working at convenience stores and 18 with a casino up in Cripple Creek. His job today pulls from both backgrounds, he figures, particularly when it comes to working in a heavily regulated industry. At the casino, he said, he counted every penny. “Now it’s every gram.” 

It helps that Route 24, with its access to Pike’s Peak, is a popular byway. And then there is the lure of Manitou Springs, with its bustling center and 19th-century look.

“Manitou Springs is a very, very, very touristy area,” he said.

I tell him about Berkshire County and its tourist pull. And that the county shares borders with several states.

And that’s what prompts him to offer that simple advice. Get in now. 

Have a question about what’s up with the cannabis business in Colorado? Email Larry Parnass at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com. And watch this space for regular reports from the road.


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