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Rocky Ford forges ahead with retail marijuana

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Will these pot shops capture all the west-bound tourists? - COURTESY ROCKY FARMS
  • Courtesy Rocky Farms
  • Will these pot shops capture all the west-bound tourists?
Marijuana sales aren’t new to Rocky Ford, one of the oldest towns along Highway 50 in southeast Colorado.

The town’s dispensary, Rocky Farms, opened in December 2016. As the sole cannabis provider in Otero County, it was and is closer to many customers in Oklahoma, Texas and southern Kansas than any of the establishments in central cities like Pueblo, Trinidad and Colorado Springs. Unfortunately for the owner of Rocky Farms, that hasn’t been a boon for business. Limited by law to selling medical product, Rocky Farms is off-limits to out-of-state visitors.

That will change now that Rocky Ford’s Ballot Question 2F has passed. The measure authorizes the licensing of retail marijuana establishments, but only for current medical licensees and those with medical license applications on file. That means only two people, both out of Colorado Springs, are eligible for the new license: The first is Rocky Farms owner Jack Sveinsson, and the second is Jack Pease, who was confident enough in passage to have remodeled a building for his dispensary in advance.

Highway 50 divides into one-way corridors through town. Rocky Farms sits on the westbound route, while Pease’s new establishment, to be called “The Station,” is on the eastbound path just before it leaves city limits. The campaign in favor of 2F, Rocky Forward, emphasized the potential for sales to visitors, using “Tax Tourists” as the slogan on its yard signs.

Inevitably, one of the concerns vocalized by opponents, both prior to the election and after, is that proximity to bordering states will lead to smuggling. But, even when retail marijuana becomes available in Rocky Ford, cities to the south like Amarillo, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, will still be closer to recreational dispensaries in Trinidad. A trip from eastern cities like Wichita, Kansas, to Rocky Ford is barely shorter than one to Trinidad and its existing marijuana dispensaries.

Investors in Rocky Ford’s new venture are not expecting round-trip tourism so much as pass-through customers en route to the Rocky Mountains. They commissioned Professor Jack Strauss of the University of Denver to analyze their market prospects. In his report, DU’s Miller Chair of Applied Economics concluded that the city “can generate more than $343,000 in additional tax revenue in 2018 if recreational marijuana sales are permitted.”

That’s music to some local ears. On Main Street in Rocky Ford, the new headquarters for its fire and police departments has sat partially built and fenced-off for months. Other infrastructure, like the city-owned museum, water lines and streets have been neglected too. This is a city that desperately needs the predicted revenue, so, along with 2F (and by a much wider margin), voters also passed Rocky Ford Ballot Question 2E, which places an extra 6 percent city tax on retail marijuana (on top of state taxes and standard sales tax). The question allows the town’s city council to adjust the tax up to 8 percent without another vote.

The actual size of this new revenue stream remains uncertain. Mountain-bound tourists may indeed stop for their first chance to purchase marijuana after crossing the border, and some $90,000 of the Stauss report’s projected tax revenues come from “economic multipliers,” such as hotel and gas purchases. Local consumption, even that from Arkansas Valley residents who live farther from Pueblo than Rocky Ford, may have a lesser effect. Only time will tell which pattern emerges.

Another factor? The town’s unique geographical position may not last very long. Sveinsson expects that “other towns and cities along the Route 50 corridor will undoubtedly start thinking the same thing... within the next two years.” Should a dispensary open in a city like Lamar or Las Animas, for example, Rocky Ford will lose its edge.

This promise of revenues and associated urgency were not enough to persuade all residents that retail marijuana has a place in Rocky Ford. 2E passed overwhelmingly (610 votes in favor to 250 opposed), but the margin of success for 2F was only six percent (456 votes in favor to 404 opposed).

With voters so divided, it’s assured that locals will continue to follow the issue. Rocky Ford may draw broader attention, too, since the town is effectively testing what retail marijuana can do for Colorado’s smaller towns, and perhaps those all across rural America. Nearby Ordway may join the experiment — its city council votes on dispensaries at the end of the month.

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