WINTER PARK — This town is booming. After a slow recovery from the recession, development is in overdrive, with a new grocery store, affordable housing, performing arts stage and community center under construction downtown. Sales tax revenues are at record levels. Weekend events crowd shops and restaurants. Retired school buses that used to ferry visitors around the Fraser Valley have been replaced by sleek, new rigs.
But the talk of the town is Dan Volpe and his plan to open a marijuana shop in the Valley Hi Motel. Despite its location at the gateway to Winter Park — where retail sale of pot is banned — the Valley Hi remains just outside town boundaries, in Grand County, where recreational and medical weed sales are OK.
Other happenings in Colorado mountain towns
Weed news and interviews: Get podcasts of The Cannabist Show.
Subscribe to our newsletter here.
Watch The Cannabist Show.
Peruse our Cannabist-themed merchandise (T’s, hats, hoodies) at Cannabist Shop.
“So many great opportunities in town right now … but I routinely hear the most feedback about this,” said Winter Park town manager Drew Nelson. “There are some residents and second homeowners who feel very strongly about this.”
Grand County’s three-member board of commissioners on Aug. 16 approved Volpe’s plan to open a Serene Wellness retail pot shop — his third — at the Valley Hi. A couple of weeks earlier, Winter Park’s seven-member town council unanimously approved a measure to fight the shop, even getting a restraining order to block the commissioners from approving Volpe’s application. But that order, signed by a Grand County judge Aug. 15, didn’t make it to the commissioners, 31 miles down the road in Hot Sulphur Springs, before their vote the next day. The town sued the commissioners to overturn the approval.
While letters of support for the shop outnumber those sent to the county by opponents, a group of local businesses, including Winter Park Resort, have galvanized against Serene Wellness, arguing the shop at the entrance of town will upend the town’s carefully curated family vibe. The former Grand County attorney who wrote the county’s marijuana regulations is now Volpe’s lawyer. Public hearings have been fiery, with the commissioners themselves split 2-1 approving the shop. Friendships have ended over the proposed shop.
Dan Volpe didn’t want it this way.
As the sole owner of Serene Wellness dispensaries in Empire and Fraser, Volpe is accustomed to breaking trail in the marijuana movement. His medical marijuana license for the Empire shop was one of the first issued in Colorado back in 2010, when medical pot sales were banned along a 100-mile span of U.S. 40, from Empire to Steamboat Springs.
When Fraser dropped its moratorium in 2014, he opened a medical facility in a 100-year-old house he rebuilt himself, well off the town’s main drag as requested. When Grand County lifted its moratorium, allowing IgadI Ltd to open a shop in nearby Tabernash, Volpe began looking for a new location in the Fraser Valley.
“I started looking at every single possible property and I saw this parcel that was zoned correctly, in a great location and in an area that allows marijuana,” he said. “It seemed really straightforward.”
Winter Park’s town council in 2010 enacted a prohibition on medical marijuana sales. In 2012 about 60 percent of voters in the town of 950 people voted in favor of the statewide ballot measure that legalized recreational cannabis. The next year, the council enacted a recreational ban, Nelson said, “out of caution, because there were significant unknowns around the new law.”
Winter Park is hardly alone in its go-slow approach to legal weed sales. Many municipalities across Colorado have waited to allow recreational sales. And many resort communities — most recently, Breckenridge — have pushed pot off their main streets. Other communities, including Vail, have banned it outright, creating green-light districts of pot shops, like the so-called Green Mile in Eagle Vail, the unincorporated community a few miles west of Vail Village.
Winter Park is different because Valley Hi Motel is on an unincorporated parcel in downtown, accidentally left out of the 1978 survey that created the town.
Because the motel property is bordered by town on only three sides, the town could not force an annexation. The motel’s owners never complained.
“The town never asked. I never offered. Why would I?” said Joe Ligas, who has owned Valley Hi for a decade. He allows his guests to smoke grass on his deck.
Former telecom and cable magnate Bob Fanch recently spent $10 million on 171 acres at the southern entrance of Winter Park, which includes the land south of the motel. Fanch and his partner, Chip Besse, are fanning the development surge in Winter Park with projects that include a new conference center, grocery store and affordable housing. If the investors ever annex their property into town, which they say they have considered, Valley Hi could be forced into town.
Besse said he’s against the Serene Wellness shop in town.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the county did not respect the constituents of Winter Park or the largest employer of Winter Park or the mayor or town council of Winter Park,” Besse said. “I personally don’t believe this fits at the entrance of the town of Winter Park.”
Winter Park Resort president Gary DeFrange also opposes the marijuana shop, saying during an Aug. 9 public hearing before the county commissioners that it would make “a bad first impression” as visitors roll into town.
“We have been known as a family-friendly, family-oriented resort, and unfortunately marijuana in today’s environment does not fit that family-friendly image,” DeFrange said. “We provide an awful lot of tax benefit to both the county and the town, and we think it would be an impairment to our business.”
Volpe said he will carve his shop out of adjoining rooms that are just off the motel’s gravel parking lot. “This is as off the main street as you can get,” he said, offering a tour.
Volpe suspects Winter Park wants marijuana, but inside town limits so it can harvest tax revenue. (He said he plans to price weed for sale in Winter Park 10 percent cheaper than he sells it in Fraser, where the town adds a 5 percent sales tax and a 5 percent marijuana tax.)
“If they were against this for purely ethical reasons, so be it,” he said. “But they are trying to stop me so they can prepare for allowing the exact same thing.”
Special report: The behemoths of Denver’s cannabis industry
Who’s climbing to the top of the industry, and who’s suffering? Empires have been built in just two short years. The numbers of the state’s largest market tell a story of a consolidating industry, as big operators buy small ones struggling to keep up with more government regulations, tax rules and other pressures
He jumped from the baby products industry to another highly regulated business, a.k.a. weed: The inside story on the accidental origins of Colorado cannabis giant LivWell Enlightened Health, which is now expanding to other states
In fact, on Aug. 2, the Winter Park Town Council drafted a resolution to ask voters if the town should lift its ban on marijuana sales — but didn’t forward it on for inclusion on the November ballot.
The Winter Park & Fraser Chamber wants the town and its businesses to have more control over planning for marijuana shops in Winter Park, executive director Catherine Ross said.
“The chamber board’s stand is that a dispensary at the entrance to the downtown corridor is not the right place,” Ross said. “It’s not the right time because as a town,Winter Park has not addressed dispensary location zoning because we still have a moratorium.”
That position is not supported by all of the chamber’s members.
“The majority of us in Winter Park voted for marijuana. We are pioneers in Colorado, so why not embrace this,” said Matt Cordts, who owns the popular Fraser Valley Hot Dog eatery and lives a block away from the Valley Hi . “We’ve got this little ‘boys club’ that runs our town and they do pretty much whatever they want they do. But when someone comes up with something new, they shoot it down.”
The Grand County commissioners and attorney declined to comment, citing pending litigation. The city’s lawsuit argues the commissioners violated county licensing procedure by not allowing Winter Park to “meaningfully participate” in the public hearing or cross-examine Volpe’s witnesses — including Empire’s police chief and mayor — who supported his application.
The commissioners acknowledged the discord around the application when they discussed the application Aug. 16. The session was recorded.
“This is a situation that I believe has the potential to be very contentious,” said Commissioner Merrit Linke, who voted in favor of the Serene Wellness proposal.
Unlike pot shop applications they rejected after overwhelming opposition from community members in Grand Lake, the commissioners said the Serene Wellness proposal had drawn more public support than opposition. (Within a 2-mile radius of town, the commissioners fielded 100 letters in opposition and 127 supporting. Outside that boundary, letters of support eclipsed opposition 282 to 44.)
The commissioners said they had no reason to deny the application based on cause — Volpe had state approval for his operation and his application was complete.
Volpe is frustrated by the fighting, but he is moving forward with his plan, waiting for his county building permits to be issued.
“We know marijuana is a draw for tourist areas. This is about money and them wanting more control,” Volpe said. “I feel like passions and emotions are being manipulated in this particular case for some future agenda.”
He says the town’s family argument is bogus — the average age of his Empire and Fraser customers is 45 and most are out-of-state visitors in the valley with their families.
“Everyone has an assumption that, let’s say the people from Texas are not going to want to come to Winter Park anymore because there’s marijuana,” said Volpe, 43, who has two kids. “I’ll tell you, every day I say God bless Texas.”
David Reeves was playing with his young kids the other day in Winter Park’s Hideaway Park. As the tykes zoomed down the playground a couple of blocks from the Valley Hi Motel, Reeves said a pot shop would not deter him from visiting. But he’s from Boulder. Weed is everywhere there, he said.
“It’s just a part of Colorado. It has no impact on my life at all,” he said. “But my family is from Georgia and they have yet to acclimate to this marijuana thing.”