Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Trading one kind of smoke for another


Hotchkiss Colorado was a coal mining town. With the collapse of the coal business, Hotchkiss has lost its main support. Having spurned marijuana sales earlier, the good people of Hotchkiss are taking the time to reconsider their previous stand.
This mountain town of coal miners and organic farmers wasted no time in saying no to marijuana. After Colorado’s 2012 vote legalizing marijuana, local leaders concerned about crime and the character of their tranquil downtown twice voted to ban the recreational and medical pot shops springing up in other towns.

But then coal crumbled. One mine here in the North Fork Valley has shut down amid a wave of coal bankruptcies and slowdowns, and another has announced that it will go dark. The closings added to a landscape of layoffs and economic woes concussing mining-dependent towns from West Virginia to Wyoming. And as Hotchkiss searches for a new economic lifeline, some people are asking: What about marijuana?...

“People have been tightening the belt or just plain moving away,” said Robbie Winne, who runs The Rose, a secondhand clothing shop along Hotchkiss’s main street. She said she supported the marijuana plan as a way to entice more visitors, or at least capture some traffic as people passed through on their way to ski towns.

Like other supporters of marijuana sales, Ms. Winne said that while pot was no panacea, at least it could perk up business and tax revenues. Colorado collected about $135 million in taxes and fees from marijuana sales last year, and small governments have taken in millions from local sales taxes. In the tiny town of DeBeque, near the Utah border, officials told Colorado Public Radio that they were considering using the tax money from marijuana to start a scholarship fund or repair streets, curbs and gutters.

Wendell Koontz, a coal-mine geologist and the mayor of Hotchkiss, said it was not worth the price to pay. He said he worried about whether the three-person marshal’s office and small town staff were enough to deal with the complications of new marijuana businesses, and about the reputation of a place that proclaims itself the “Friendliest Town Around.”

“There’s a concern that kind of atmosphere could be lost,” he said. “And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Others say it is time for a bold move. Mary Hockenbery, a New Mexico transplant who runs an eclectic art gallery in an old church, has been a leading voice behind the initiative. Coal is not coming back, she said, and though she and others have tried to spruce up the main street with cosmetic measures like new flower boxes, the town needs more.
Marijuana sales may fill up a few store fronts but it looks like too many people see weed sales in the same light as a casino, a financial savior for the town. But no casino yet has saved a town without a solid base to begin with. And coal was that base and what they need to replace.

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