WALSENBURG, Colo. – A developer’s plan to build hundreds of cannabis greenhouses could make this tiny southern Colorado town one of the nation’s largest producers of legal marijuana.
The town sold 330 acres of municipal land for more than $1 million to create a campus for growing, processing and distribution, with the marijuana to be trucked 160 miles north to consumers in metro Denver. Walsenburg is a former coal mining town that never recovered when the mines closed by the 1960s, and its population has dropped to fewer than 3,000 residents. In Huerfano County, which is home to Walsenburg, 20% of the population lives below poverty level.
Today, the town’s main street is filled with vacant buildings offered at cheap rent. Most people drive through the historic downtown without stopping, often headed west to Great Sand Dunes National Park or Wolf Creek Ski Area. The marijuana project envisions pumping $1 million monthly into the local economy, giving town officials funds for road and infrastructure repairs, and also offering as many as a 1,000 direct and related jobs.
"The only export we really had was smart kids. Now hopefully this will be able to retain those kids in this community," said Walsenburg Mayor James Eccher.
The Martra Development project proposes having about 500 people working on the site, with each greenhouse rented out separately. That will allow smaller growers to get started while giving them room to expand. Martra officials visited 17 counties in Colorado searching for the right combination of land, water and a business-friendly climate.
"There’s people who are saying, ‘hey, embrace this. And then there are CAVE people – citizens against virtually everything. You’re not going to satisfy everybody. What you have to do is try to do is at least not anger the majority," said county administrator John Galusha.
Today, most marijuana grown in Colorado is grown indoors in warehouses stuffed with high-powered lights to mimic the sun. Industry experts say warehouses in urban areas were simply the easiest place for growers to set up shop, especially for those accustomed to hiding their work.
Indoor marijuana cultivation uses so much energy that Boulder County, Colo., enacted a special fee to offset the power demands by growers running lights for 12 hours a day. With marijuana legal in Colorado, a growing number of developers are erecting special-purpose cannabis greenhouses in traditionally agricultural areas to take advantage of abundant natural sunlight and a long growing season.
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"A cannabis operator, who’s been operating up there (in Denver) with the boot on his neck, just choking to death on his overhead, looks at this model and says ‘when can I have it?" said Brian Trani, Martra’s CEO.
The answer, Trani says, is as soon as October. County officials say the project has been met with some skepticism by locals who say Walsenburg has had its hoped dashed before, including when a nearby privately-run prison and a manufactured-home factory closed.
Count Maria Cocchiarelli-Berger among the skeptics. The curator of the town’s contemporary art museum, she worries Walsenburg is pinning too many hopes on a single project. Still, she admits, the town needs to do something.
"I like to be optimistic, but having lived here for 10 years now, I’ve seen a number of ideas come through that were going to save us. We’ve pinned our hopes on these things … but lots of people just last six months or a year. I do hope it works, but until I see it working, I really am not sure that that’s going to be the key out of the mess we’re in."
A marijuana-growing supply store opened in downtown Walsenburg a few months ago, and co-founder Luara Tank says she’s struggling to keep lights, potting soil and other equipment in stock. On the store counter sits a dish of replacement springs for marijuana-trimming shears, and while the store has been welcomed, some customers still park around back or up the street, she said. Tank moved to Walsenburg to grow, and got tired of making the two-hour round-trip drive to buy supplies.
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"People were guerrilla-growing anyway," Tank said. "It’s pretty perfect here for growing. There’s no jobs here, so you have to make your own job."
Four states have legalized recreational marijuana, along with the District of Columbia, and 23 states and the District have legalized some form of medical marijuana. In many cases, officials levy taxes on the marijuana products to help move the marketplace from the black market to a legitimate business. Colorado reported collecting $10.6 million in legal marijuana taxes and fees in May, twice the amount it collected a year ago, with $91 million collected in the nearly-finished fiscal year.