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Pot on the plains | Colorado Springs Gazette, News

State of Marijuana

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Part 2

Sedgwick, a struggling town on the Colorado prairie, found salvation in legalized pot

Kurt Hodel, right, came from suburban Chicago to eastern Colorado to work in the marijuana industry. Nathaniel Kollarits works for the family business, Sedgwick Alternative Relief, where Hodel is general manager. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

SEDGWICK — Residents of this sleepy little town in far northeast Colorado smile optimistically when talking about the turn their municipality has taken over the past few years.

Town officials, local business owners and residents alike paint a picture of a wind-blown burg on the eastern plains that was on the brink of death in the early 2000s.

“It was turning into a ghost town,” said Rhonda Jones, Sedgwick’s town clerk and a lifelong Sedgwick County resident who graduated from nearby Julesburg High School.

One business owner said that when he arrived shortly before 2014 there “were literally weeds 3 feet tall growing in the gutters.” Gusts propelled tumbleweeds into thorny stacks. Buildings along Main Avenue — one of only a few streets in the hamlet of 150 people — were in disrepair.

Jones and Sedgwick trustees Peggy Owens and Carole Cross recently displayed photos of one building that had collapsed. They admitted that town officials had begun serious discussions around 2010 about simply giving up the ghost, about unincorporating their little town less than 10 miles from the Nebraska state line.

Then the mood changed.

They looked up from the pictures scattered on the table in Sedgwick Town Hall and out the large windows to the north and east where those shabby buildings have begun to undergo renovations and, here and there, total reconstruction.

“Sedgwick has suddenly become a boom town, or at least alive again,” Owens said.

The resurgence can be attributed to one circumstance — legal marijuana.

Tide of marijuana

Not everyone is happy about this rising tide that has lifted little Sedgwick’s boat, including, officially, the entire state of Nebraska, a quick jaunt up Interstate 76. Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado over its legal marijuana all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Pot came to Sedgwick in 2010 when the town passed an ordinance to allow a medical marijuana dispensary to open in 2012. When state voters approved Colorado Amendment 64, making it legal to possess and grow pot for recreational use, the town allowed Sedgwick Alternative Relief to expand into the recreational trade.

What happened next gave the town hope.

Not all Nebraska residents were opposed, of course, and they — along with many other people who live in Colorado’s northeast corner — began pouring into Sedgwick to get a taste of the marijuana store’s products bearing such colorful names as Dixie Chocolate, Green Hornet, Donkey Kong and even one with the locally appropriate moniker of TumbleWeed.

“Just because I don’t do it doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t.”

— Lupe Casias, owner of the Sedgwick Antique Inn

Lupe Casias, owner of the Sedgwick Antique Inn across Main Avenue from the marijuana dispensary, said she does not partake in marijuana but added that, “Just because I don’t do it doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t.”

Business has improved markedly for Sedgwick resident Lupe Casias at her bed-and-breakfast, the Sedgwick Antique Inn. Casias' B&B sits across Main Avenue from the marijuana dispensary, Sedgwick Alternative Relief. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Casias said her bed and breakfast with 17 hotel rooms in the town’s former bank building has seen business grow. The inn has made an effort to be “4-20 friendly” since the pot store opened, she said.

She put together a “smoke shack” on the north end of the hotel for her guests and anyone else coming to Sedgwick for marijuana. The shack has a shaggy-chic design with furniture and other amenities for those using marijuana to do so in comfort.

Overcoming skepticism

Casias, who has owned the business for 16 years and previously served as a town trustee, agreed that Sedgwick had been slipping toward oblivion. She said tax revenue from the medical and recreational pot has helped build up the “small, progressive” town’s maintenance fund. And she said the town is getting cleaned up and “taking care of itself.”

Rhonda Jones, Sedgwick's town clerk, opens the front door to City Hall on Main Avenue. Before warming up to the marijuana business, Sedgwick was becoming a ghost town, she said. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

The hotel owner, as well as the clerk, trustees and other residents, said the arrival of marijuana in Sedgwick was not void of backlash, particularly at first.

“A lot of older people complained about it,” town mechanic Charles Toyne said.

According to town clerk Jones, even before the medical dispensary opened, there was skepticism among some of the townsfolk.

“They were very scared it was going to overrun our community,” she said.

Segwick town clerk Rhonda Jones is hopeful that the old town jail will be made into a museum with some funding marijuana taxes. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Since then, Toyne said, visible progress has alleviated some of those concerns. He noted that renovations in the heart of Sedgwick have started to spread beyond the main drag.

“One day, we had five carpenter crews working at the same time,” he said.

The town clerk echoed Casias’ assessment. While Jones wouldn’t share details about increases in tax revenue from the marijuana sales, she said there had been a significant increase in the general fund.

“We’ve invested in some new equipment for the shop and the town,” Jones said.

Trustee Cross added that the town has spruced up street signs and has begun planning to redo Main Avenue, clean up sidewalks and address other infrastructure needs.

“We’ve invested in some new equipment for the shop and the town.”

— Rhonda Jones, Sedgwick’s town clerk

According to Owens, the improvements have “had a positive effect on people’s attitudes.” Jones said that for some the worries and concerns have led to an eye-opening of the potential benefits of medical marijuana.

“Some of those people now are going over there to get salves,” she said. “They’ve found out it can be a good thing.”

Negatives for neighbors

In 2014, shortly after recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado and in Sedgwick, an NBC News report quoted the police chief of Sidney, Neb., a border town not far from Sedgwick, saying that by mid-2014 marijuana-related arrests had surpassed those of the previous year and that marijuana crime was rampant.

Chief B.J. Wilkinson said the impact of people heading south to Colorado and bringing weed back to Nebraska where it is illegal had financially stressed the state’s judicial system.

The collateral effects of legalization led to the multistate lawsuit in late 2014 seeking a court order to prevent the continued implementation of Amendment 64. The complaint said 64 was in direct violation of federal law.

“If this entity were based south of our border, the federal government would prosecute it as a drug cartel,” said a supplemental brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2016.

How did the attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma really feel about Colorado’s weed?

“Colorado has created a massive criminal enterprise whose sole purpose is to authorize and facilitate the manufacture, distribution, sale, and use of marijuana,” the brief said.

Nevertheless, the high court declined to hear the case. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver began revisiting the issue in January, with no timetable set for a decision.

For their part, Sedgwick’s Cross and Casias said the marijuana crowd has been pretty well behaved. The influx of visitors from Nebraska has not led to an increase in crime.

“People come in, get what they want, stay the night and they leave,” Casias said.

Spreading into cultivation

Sedgwick Alternative Relief general manager Kurt Hodel said he and dispensary owner Michael Kollarits have helped Sedgwick avoid a fate that has befallen many small agriculture-based towns across the nation.

Hodel, a former developer in the Chicago area, pointed to the advent of interstate travel on roads like I-76 that allowed travelers to simply speed past.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

Hodel said the dispensary has given people a reason to come back to Sedgwick.

“To be able to have that kind of impact, I take a lot of pride in that,” he said.

The resurgence of the town has Sedgwick officials looking to the future with optimism.

And the resurgence of the town has Sedgwick officials looking to the future with optimism.

At the end of 2016, the town passed an ordinance repealing its previous retail marijuana regulations and expanding to allow more pot cultivation facilities.

Thomas Schmittinger, who runs the cultivation part of Sedgwick Alternative Relief, helped push for the revised ordinance. Schmittinger, also known as “T.J. Buds,” came to Sedgwick in 2013 and began working for Alternative Relief when it was still housed in a double-wide trailer.

He plans to open at least two more grow facilities “as soon as possible” that would eventually become suppliers for stores in Colorado and potentially in other states that have recently legalized marijuana.

Schmittinger and town officials see the expansion of the cultivation industry as a chance to further increase its tax base while maintaining the small-town feel.

As the town continues to experience its rebirth, the trustees envision a place that people will come to for more than just pot.

Sedgwick, a town that grew out of wheat and sugar beet farming, incorporated in 1908. It recently began building a museum on Main Avenue to celebrate its history and the history of the West. And town officials and business owners hope to expand on Sedgwick’s annual Harvest Festival and car show and add more events to attract visitors.

But most important, Sedgwick residents want to grow the burg into a place where people will raise a family and stay.

“We’re not looking for giant growth,” Owens said. “But we’re looking to keep our young people here and have a place where they can thrive.”

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