Retail marijuana sales are legal in Manitou Springs, but prospective pot merchants are playing a waiting game while a multi-tiered licensing process plays out.
The City Council in the town of about 5,200 west of Colorado Springs legalized retail sales Jan. 21 on a 6-1 vote. The amendment to the city code allows two marijuana stores to be operated in the town's commercial district, but not in the downtown sector. Most of the commercial zone is east of City Hall along Manitou Avenue.
But the vote did not mean that businesses opened the next day, or even the next month. Bill Conkling, owner of Maggie's Farm medical marijuana centers, plans to open one of those marijuana stores. Maggie's Farm has two locations in Colorado Springs and another in Ca?n City. The Manitou Springs City Council approved Conkling in the fall for another location at 141 Manitou Ave., which the owner plans to convert to a retail store or make it a dual retail/medical pot location.
"The first day I qualify to apply for retail, I will do so," Conkling said, noting that the building in Manitou that was once an auto repair shop will undergo renovations and open as a medical dispensary before he can move toward retail licensing.
Once Conkling's dispensary opens just east of the U.S. 24 bridge on Manitou Avenue, the next step is to complete the application process through the state. That will include making an appointment with a background investigator to prove that Maggie's Farm is in good standing. Then Conkling must formally apply, paying $500 in application fees before giving the state anywhere from $3,750 to $14,000 in licensing fees.
The process then turns to the town of Manitou Springs, where Conkling must first apply to and appear before the planning commission.
Mayor Marc Snyder said building plans must be approved by the planner and inspections conducted before applications are placed on the council agenda. The council will make final approval before a retail pot store can open.
Among Manitou Springs fees for retail marijuana stores are $300 for a conditional use permit and an annual operating fee of $5,000, town planner Michelle Anthony said.
According to Colorado law, Conkling and the other medical pot dispensary currently licensed in Manitou Springs will be the only businesses able to apply for a retail license until July 1.
Manitou's other dispensary is Absolute Manitou Wellness Center at 2 Manitou Ave. The principal owners could not be reached for comment.
Conkling, 50, said his company is "already well branded in El Paso County," which he thinks will help his image as he opens Maggie's Farm's doors to retail. While he predicts retail sales will prove to be a strong business move, Conkling says his intentions are also to help people who need pot medically but for "one reason or another" won't go get a "red card."
He said the muddled licensing process has created some frustration by delaying the opening of stores in Manitou.
"I'm impatient to serve the retail marijuana customers," he said. "It's not all about the money. There are plenty of customers in the county that might qualify for a red card but just don't want to get one."
Conkling said he won't decide whether to convert to a retail-only store or run a dual operation until he gauges demand. He is aiming for an April opening, possibly April 20, which is dubbed "4/20" by pot users as a day to celebrate marijuana.
"I don't want to get my hopes up," Conkling said. "But that would be nice."
While Conkling and Manitou officials get retail sales rolling, a group called "No Retail Marijuana in Manitou Springs" began a process of its own Feb. 1.
The group of Manitou residents and business owners began collecting signatures to get a question on the November ballot that they hope will make retail stores illegal in the town at the foot of Pikes Peak.
Tim Haas, who has been outspoken for the group since the summer of 2013, said the idea is "not to make a moral judgment" but simply to allow the people of Manitou Springs to make the decision about allowing pot stores, rather than leaving it to the council.
"We're trying to give voters the opportunity to voice their opinion one way or the other and not have council interpret the state amendment," Haas said.
He said he believes the city will benefit greatly from marijuana sales tax but added that there is a bigger cost to the image of the community and local businesses that will tarnish Manitou in the long run.
Haas owns the Manitou Outpost, Mountain High Sports, Mountain High Gallery and Gift and the Garden of the Gods Trading Post.
The move toward an updated ballot question tweaks a previous effort by Haas and his group to get the issue put on the November 2013 ballot.
Haas said that effort, and the proposed question, was an "advisory question" meant to help the seven-member council make the right decision Jan. 21.
No Retail Marijuana in Manitou Springs must gather almost 300 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
A Jan. 27 meeting to gauge interest drew nearly 80 people despite bad weather, Haas said. He said that indicates his group will have no problem getting the needed signatures.
"I believe we will be able to get at least 1,000 signatures," Haas said.