AURORA — Talk about a soft opening.
The city of Aurora is going live with recreational marijuana sales for the first time Wednesday, Oct. 1. But of the 21 businesses that received licenses to peddle pot in the city, there may not be any that actually will open their doors on the monumental day.
Because Aurora didn’t have medical marijuana sales, it had to wait until Oct. 1 of this year to allow recreational sales and create regulations from scratch. But after taking more than a year to finalize those guidelines, Aurora then had a tight time frame to license businesses, which has played a big factor in the expected low opening-day numbers.
One current site for a proposed pot shop is still selling used appliances off Peoria Street. Another has mechanics working on vehicles at an auto garage. A third site is empty and looks abandoned next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant along East Colfax Avenue.
Near Southlands mall in far southeast Aurora, crews late last week were busy sawing off drive-through vacuum tubes at a former bank building, which will be home to the Euflora pot store on South Gun Club Road.
“I hope we have more than one opening,” Aurora Marijuana Enforcement Division manager Robin Peterson said last week. “For whatever reason, we weren’t able to get all the plans in. And once we did, it was difficult for plan examiners to get through them because they’ve been so backlogged.”
That one store was supposed to be Euflora, but co-owner Jamie Perino said last-minute permits and other issues are forcing the shop to delay its opening for about a week.
Perino said she and her partner can’t wait to sell the green stuff in one of the city’s most affluent areas, Ward 6.
“We’re really excited because we’re going to be ahead of the game there,” Perino said. “There’s a little more expendable income out there.”
Aurora’s foray into recreational marijuana sales caps a nearly two-year process after statewide voters in November 2012 approved Amendment 64, which allows for the sale and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
After more than a year of debate, Aurora in May finally adopted regulations on marijuana sales. It began accepting applications July 1 and closed the process a month later. The 21 licenses awarded to Aurora pot shops were approved in late August.
That gave store owners about a month to renovate a site and pass city inspections.
“There are a lot of things necessary for anybody to move in, not just the marijuana guys. Interior walls going up, you have to have inspections, electrical people,” Peterson said. “We’ve had a few (almost ready) but not as many as I would have thought by now.”
Aurora is allowing 24 recreational marijuana stores — four in each of the six city council districts. But only one, Euflora, met the city’s stringent requirements for a pot license and will open in Ward 6.
Applications for the remaining three licenses in southeast Aurora still are being accepted.
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When Denver began allowing marijuana sales Jan. 1, there were 18 shops that opened on the first day, said Denver spokeswoman Amber Miller. There now are 96 pot shops open in the city.
Denver has had medical marijuana shops open for several years, so it was easier for some of those owners to add recreational sales at those facilities.
Brian Ruden, who owns Starbuds on Del Mar Parkway in Aurora, said he plans to open his shop in mid- to late October. Like other owners in Aurora, Ruden has several marijuana facilities in place in other cities and can draw on those experiences.
“Aurora is a phenomenal opportunity because Aurora is nearly as large as Denver yet will only have 24 dispensaries,” Ruden said. “The population-per-dispensary ratio is so much greater in Aurora than it is in Denver.”
According to 2013 U.S. Census data, about 345,000 people call Aurora home; Denver is at 650,000.
Next door to Starbuds, Gabby Gonzales owns a beauty shop. Initially, when she heard a recreational marijuana shop would be opening next door, she was “in shock.” But after learning about the business and thinking of the bigger picture, Gonzales said it might not be such a bad thing.
“I’m hoping to get some of their customers,” she said. “They’re going to come here to get the marijuana. Maybe they’ll also get a haircut.”
Aurora’s shops will have a big advantage over their counterparts to the east — an extra three hours to sell at night.
Denver pot shops have to close by 7 p.m., while Aurora’s rules allow for closing time at 10 p.m.
“It was definitely intentional,” said Aurora City Councilman Bob Roth, who was chairman of the committee that set the marijuana regulations. “We made the conscious decision for the competitive nature of the business in Aurora that we would let operators stay open later.”
Roth isn’t concerned about how many marijuana stores open Wednesday because the city is in it for the long haul, he said, and it’s better to do it right, even if that takes a little more time.
“In retrospect, I don’t think I would have done it any different,” he said.
Aurora’s sales tax rate of 3.75 percent is expected to generate about $2.8 million annually on marijuana, according to city estimates. If voters in November approve an additional 2 percent tax just on pot, that would mean another $1.1 million for city coffers.
While the number of pot shops in Aurora is capped at 24, a future city council could increase that number.
Because of the number of shops already in Denver and the city’s pot restrictions, such as how close they can be to schools, “you can’t find places in Denver to expand,” Perino said.
Once the Aurora shops get up and running, retail marijuana appears to have a bright future.
“It’s the new frontier,” Perino said.
Carlos Illescas: 303-954-1175, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/cillescasdp