- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - When Michelle Mitnik walks into her church for Sunday services, few there know her business. Literally.

It’s not something the 52-year-old Colorado Springs woman talks about with her church friends for fear of social stigma, but when she opens up, it’s like listening to your grandmother tell a nice bedtime story - a story of how she spends a good portion of her time in the back of a limo assuring that her joint-smoking clients are having a good time.

A 15-year veteran of the banking industry, Mitnik owns and operates Mountain High Treks, a marijuana tourism company that offers high-end dispensary tours, cannabis-friendly dude ranch vacations and, in the near future, marijuana-themed weddings.

She employs two tour guides and has several more on-call. She spends her profits in the area, and orders all of her promotional materials from local businesses.

Never mind that there are no recreational marijuana outlets in El Paso County. The area’s medical marijuana industry, coupled with legal recreational possession and use, have been enough to spawn a number of ancillary businesses like Mitnik’s, which ripple into other areas of the local economy.

For every marijuana dispensary or grow operation in Colorado Springs, somebody had to design and manufacture the signs in their windows and storefronts. Somebody had to wire the lights, keep the books and make sure the place is up to legal code.

“The whole marijuana industry is just trickle-down economics,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

Along with Mitnik’s business, Colorado Springs has a growing cottage industry that includes a marijuana lounge, a grow-your-own consultancy and manufacturers of edibles and vaporizers. There are many more in the Denver area, all nurtured by the state’s pioneering role in cannabis sales.

From 2009 through April of this year, Colorado Springs medical marijuana dispensaries generated more than $4.2 million in city sales and use taxes, according to the city’s finance department. But those numbers don’t include the taxes that businesses like Mitnik’s pay, or the money from the contracts they sign with other companies, said Michael Elliot, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Denver-based trade and lobbying association.

It’s impossible to put a dollar figure on the economic impact from the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana and the other businesses that have grown up around it, he said, but he estimates it to be in the hundreds of millions statewide.

For starters, marijuana businesses - like any new enterprises - demand a variety of services and products, creating an economic boost across sectors, said Phyllis Resnick, lead economist at the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. Manufacturing and real estate are two areas that have been particularly affected, she said. The manufacturing of edible products and equipment for grow operation will generate business for related companies, creating a multiplier effect across the state.

Marijuana businesses have also been filling storefront and warehouse vacancies left by the recession, she said.

But not everybody thinks the burgeoning industry is good for business. Statewide legalization of recreational use “continues to be a challenge for our businesses,” said Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. Some are struggling to find employees who can pass drug tests, he said.

Raso said he’s not aware of companies that haven’t come to Colorado Springs specifically because of legalized marijuana, but added that it can be a factor in business leaders’ decisions.

“Any time there’s an uncertainty in the market, it creates a higher concern for companies that are making those decisions,” he said.

Resnick, however, said she hasn’t seen any economic downsides to legalization. Although some said it would hurt tourism or drive away businesses, there is no proof thus far that it’s happening, she said.

“I would imagine if there is an economic downside at all, it’s all in perception,” she said.

Perception may be one reason Mitnik is reluctant to discuss her 5-month-old business with her church friends, but she’s seeing a change in attitudes, and hopes to tap into what she believes is a growing demographic of cannabis enthusiasts: middle-aged adults from the middle and upper classes, who she says are becoming more open to using marijuana as they age and use it to treat health issues.

Her heart is really in helping people use marijuana to treat their pain and illnesses; an illness forced her to leave her job in the banking industry, and she started using marijuana to treat her pain.

But she sees green in the recreational side as well. While dispensary tours dominate most of her business, she thinks her wedding planning services and vacation packages will soon take over because there is little competition. Eventually, Mitnik would like to buy her own property to host weddings and teach edibles baking classes.

If she needs advice, she has ties to a growing community of people who are building their own pot-related enterprises.

“The network web we’re weaving is all over the country, and it’s growing,” Mitnik said. “There are people in this industry popping up every day.”

At the center of Colorado Springs’ web is KC Stark, owner of the marijuana social club Studio A64 and co-founder of the Marijuana Business Academy, which is based in Colorado Springs and will soon open a satellite office in Denver.

The Marijuana Business Academy helps launch entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry by breaking down the ever-changing laws into simple language, teaching basic business principles and connecting “ganjapreneurs” with potential investors.

“We’re the little guys building the big guys,” Stark said. “Our job is to help entrepreneurs that want to play marijuana monopoly.”

Since Stark and his co-founder, Charles Houghton, started the academy in 2010, it has helped launch hundreds of businesses across the country and three local businesses in the last month, he said. His goal is to change Colorado Springs’ marijuana industry from an “underground ghetto” into the “Silicon Valley of the pot business.”

Some come to him for private consultation. Others travel to Colorado Springs to attend one of his eight-hour “How to Start Your Own Marijuana Business” group seminars. The most recent seminar in late June brought a sold-out crowd of 57 to the Wyndham Grand Hotel. Stark’s next seminars will take place in Miami and Chicago.

The pot business is just like any other, Stark said, though people often mistakenly think that regulations are too complicated or that they need a large amount of capital to get started.

“Everyone can learn the game. You just have to understand the law and the rewards and risk,” he said. “After that, it’s just business.”

Dustin Cooper and Jonathan Hanson’s marijuana business began after Cooper’s dog urinated on the floor of Studio A64. When Stark needed a new floor, Cooper volunteered to help. Soon the three men were working on a business plan for Call Grow Squad, which designs and installs medical and recreational marijuana grow operations and provides long-term plant care.

“I was a laid-off software engineer and I didn’t want to sit in an office all day ever again,” Cooper said. “It took us about 24 hours to get together, brainstorm and start working.”

In the three months since their business began, Cooper and Hanson have installed 10 operations. Both men were previously unemployed; now, they don’t seem to have enough hours in the day to finish their work and are looking to hire.

“Our stack of resumes of people wanting to work for us is just a little taller than the stack of people wanting us to work for them,” Cooper said. “I’m getting to the point where I’m working until 9 p.m. every night.”

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Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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