GARDEN CITY — Nestled between two cities and on the edge of a bustling highway intersection, Garden City remains true to its roots as a tiny island of flowering, flourishing sin.
Farmer A.F. Ray, a bootlegger who used hollowed-out melons to cart his moonshine, made it the place to go for a good drink during Prohibition. The area was formally incorporated as Garden City in 1938, and the town boomed as a place to legally buy and drink booze while neighboring Greeley remained dry until 1969.
Today, the town is poised to continue its free-wheeling ways again, this time by opening the door to recreational marijuana sales that Greeley, Evans and unincorporated Weld County have banned.
“We stand for individual rights, and going against the trends. It’s OK to be different,” said the mayor of Garden City, Brian Seifried. But “it is incredibly ironic that it is so precisely the story from the past.”
Since Colorado voters legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults, many municipalities have adopted ordinances to outlaw the recreational business within their boundaries.
Garden City, a patch of land no more than a few blocks in any direction, is surrounded on three sides by Greeley and Evans on the fourth. It seems to stand alone when it comes to recreational pot sales in Weld County. In addition to Greeley and Evans, others banning marijuana include Windsor, Johnstown, Berthoud and Loveland.
Dacono residents recently voted to overturn a ban on medical marijuana centers, but they kept in place a ban on recreational shops.
Earlier this month, Garden City’s town board passed an ordinance allowing recreational sales of marijuana. It didn’t come as a surprise.
Of the four medical marijuana dispensaries, so far three have applied to sell recreational marijuana and the fourth also intends to apply, though none are sure they will be able to open on Jan. 1.
New centers won’t be allowed.
For decades after Greeley allowed bars and liquor stores, Garden City’s allure began to diminish as customers chose to drink elsewhere. Some even considered dissolving their town.
That changed, however, when Garden City’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened four years ago. The industry began pumping big money into town coffers.
“If you don’t get out there and stick your neck out, things are never going to move forward,” he said.
Garden City is less than a square mile in size. The town has 60 businesses, and close to 300 residents — many living on low or fixed incomes. Town clerk Cheryl Campbell said she couldn’t say how much dispensaries contribute, but she said it is less than one-third of the town’s sales tax revenues.
In October the town collected about $67,000 in sales tax revenues, up from the about $16,000 it typically collected in a month five years ago.
Paired with a sales tax increase in 2010, and more businesses coming to town, Garden City has been able to fix roads, hire a code enforcement officer, trim or take down about 60 sick and dead trees, and to invest in matching grants for businesses improving their facade or residents replacing fences.
“I’m very proud to say, we don’t have a single pot hole in Garden City, I checked,” Seifried said.
The town’s dispensaries are also reaping the benefits.
The Nature’s Herb and Wellness Center has more than doubled its space in the past four years and owners are preparing to open a second greenhouse next year.
Owner John Rotherham said he didn’t know about Garden City when he was looking for a place to open up shop, but after being turned away everywhere else, a relative told him about the town.
“I love it,” Rotherham said. “I think it’s really neat that history’s replaying itself.”
Rotherham said his customers sometimes come from as far as Sterling or Estes Park.
Reminders of Garden City’s origins are scattered around town — like the black-and-white pictures in the first bars that opened in town, and sealed basements that are said to have once led to tunnels for moonshine or brothels. Town elders love to talk about that history.
Except for its bustling bars and marijuana shops, there’s little difference between Garden City and its neighbors. In the daytime, when the parking lots of the Whiskey River and other bars are empty, it’s possible to pass right through Garden City without even realizing it.
The town is no longer seen as vice-central by its neighbors.
“We work well with their city,” said Evans mayor Lyle Achziger. “We respect their right to determine their laws regarding marijuana, and they respect ours to not have marijuana stores.”
Nancy Lynch, exhibits and collections curator for City of Greeley Museums,said Greeley wasn’t always so fond of its neighbor.
“They didn’t want to have a town neighboring their town that sold liquor,” Lynch said. “Greeley was started by people who were temperate.”
Garden City wasn’t alone. A handful of other towns were started in the same way, including Rosedale — which sat just across 8th Avenue from Garden City but was later incorporated into Garden City.
“Sometimes it takes a vision,” Seifried said. “We’re proud of having a community with character.”