Most read stories of 2016: Backcountry Cannabis Company lived the uncertainty of Colorado’s marijuana industry (No. 1)
In Colorado’s marijuana industry, 14 months might as well be a lifetime.
From the first day of retail marijuana in 2014 to the day Breckenridge quelled downtown pot sales on Feb. 2, Breckenridge Cannabis Club was easily one of the most talked-about dispensaries in Summit County, not to mention the whole of Colorado and, after penning a deal with CNN for an exclusive documentary series, the nation.
Co-owners Brian Rogers and Caitlin McGuire were the first and final entrepreneurs to operate a retail shop on Main Street in Breckenridge, thriving alongside small business neighbors like bars and restaurants and t-shirt shops on a bustling mountain-town strip.
It only helped that the young and ambitious couple were tapping into an industry that rewards a certain amount of audacity: she a 25-year-old Colorado native who never completed college, he a 34-year-old Maryland resident who attended small Millerville University in Pennsylvania, both with dreams of one day franchising a federally illegal drug on a massive scale.
It’s already been done by Native Roots of Denver with eight locations across the state, and on a smaller scale by Princeton grad Nick Brown of High Country Healing, whose brand touts five locations and a spot on MSNBC’s “Pot Barons.” But neither business has been through the same volatile growing pains as BCC.
“Their company has ballooned incredibly in just a year,” said Pat Kondelis, producer of the CNN series, “High Profits.” “They were very much a mom-and-pop shop when we started shooting, while now, they are much more of a company. When we first ran into them it just wasn’t like that at all.”
Breckenridge itself was always built into the BCC brand. But Rogers and McGuire were far from the only dispensary owners to tap a ready-made market. When they first opened as medical-only center in 2010, there were two additional dispensaries in the downtown core — an industry footnote most visitors and even locals tend to overlook.
“We all opened at a time when Main Street was open for marijuana,” said Rogers, referring to both his now-defunct medical neighbors and current retail competitors on Airport Road. “We didn’t win a lottery or pay off an official to be there. There were three shops in town at one time and we managed to survive.”
Almost by default, BCC became the most visible face of a curious new industry in a town with historically liberal marijuana laws. Back in 2009, shortly after the medical marijuana boom, Breckenridge voters showed overwhelming support for complete decriminalization, becoming just the second Colorado town to do so after Denver in 2005.
Both votes were largely symbolic when pot was still illegal statewide, but they were harbingers of what would come five short years later. In 2014, Breck’s marijuana dispensaries generated more than $7 million in taxable revenue, an increase of 220 percent over 2013, the final year of medical-only sales. Nearly half of the never-before-seen retail revenue can be credited to BCC, according to town officials.
Yet even if Amendment 64 had failed miserably, limiting marijuana to medical patients and the black market, Breck wasn’t aching for a $7 million boost. The town has remained more or less bulletproof through the thick of an international economic depression: After dipping slightly in the late 2000s, lodging and skier visits rose at a steady clip almost every year until the 2014-2015 ski season, when in-town lodges broke all-time reservation numbers. Those heads in beds translated to feet on the street, which translated to the type of marketing money can’t buy.
And BCC’s owners knew it.
“I think Brian and Caitlin are both very, very smart,” said Kondelis, whose small film crew followed the BCC team for more than a year and a half. “They’re smart, they’re ambitious. Brian is a very good businessman who can see things that myself, not being part of the industry, just couldn’t see.”
In any given week on Main Street, thousands of curious tourists would wander by BCC’s cozy, brown-trimmed cottage to simply catch a glimpse of a new industry on the rise. The cottage even made national news on New Year’s Day in 2014 — the advent of legal weed — when a steady stream of customers stretched along the snowy block from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Media outlets dubbed the occasion “Green Wednesday,” an allusion to cannabis and its potential profits.
“I’ve been waiting in line about 20 minutes, but that’s nothing compared to waiting like 30 years for this to happen,” a California-born customer told a reporter at her spot along Main, followed by a common Green Wednesday refrain from another customer who came from Austin: “Oh man, it’s about to get so weird.”
BANNED FROM MAIN STREET
In the months leading to Feb. 2, BCC was again in the news, this time for a hotly contested public vote to ban all retail marijuana sales on Main Street.
BCC’s retail license didn’t protect it past the end of a five-year lease — a term firmly set by town officials when the owners were allowed to transition from medical to retail — and following six months of debate over the character of downtown Breckenridge, voters opted to keep marijuana off of Main Street, at least for the time being.
“I don’t think anyone on council will be willing to change the current ordinance,” said Breckenridge councilwoman Elisabeth Lawrence, the sole councilmember against the Main Street ban. “2014 was the year of marijuana, but I think we are all glad this is behind us. I think everyone is. I’m still disappointed with the way it was handled, the fact that Breckenridge removed a business that was on Main Street for five years.”
For BCC, the vote was more than a momentary setback. A business that went from annual sales of $515,000 as a medical center to roughly $3 million in 2014 on the strength of retail alone was forced to pack up shop, rethink the heart of a burgeoning brand and move two miles away to Airport Road, where it now quietly operates on the same one-mile strip as Breckenridge’s three other dispensaries.
The move even spurred a name change, now emblazoned across pot jars and shot glasses and t-shirts in the new, noticeably custom-built space: Backcountry Cannabis Company.
“The dispensary owners on Airport Road only cared that things were so-called ‘fair’ — that either everyone could be on Main Street or no one could be,” Lawrence said. “But with many of our decisions, we’re thinking about the guest experience and that’s what guided my vote. It was easy to see through the sales tax numbers and through BCC, who were very honest about their numbers, how much influence they had on Main Street.”
A ‘DANGEROUS PRECEDENT’
By the tail end of spring break, nearly a month to the day after their move, McGuire and Rogers found a moment to wrap their heads around the future of BCC. The cameras had disappeared — “High Profits” debuted on April 19, and producer Kondelis isn’t sure if it will earn a second season — and in-town tensions had cooled just enough to make Rogers more reflective.
Backcountry Cannabis Company on Airport Road is noticeably quieter than its Main Street predecessor. Still, Rogers is proud of the new space. It sits in BCC’s former garden building, which was gutted and remodeled when the master growers moved to a new, soon-to-be-expanded site in Steamboat Springs.
The Airport Road shop is clean, attractive and, in a sort of glass-half-full spin, more than twice as large as the Main Street cottage — although it’s still far from enormous. Employees shuffle quietly behind the small yet attractive bud bar, leaning over glass cases filled with marijuana strains, pre-rolled joints and dozens of additional products: wax, shatter, edibles, glass pipes.
“One positive thing is we weren’t forced to cohere to a layout that was designed in the 1800s, like the spot on Main Street,” Rogers said.
Thanks to the Steamboat grow and a Crested Butte dispensary — yet another reason for a location-neutral name — the BCC brand has blossomed from five people in 2010 to more than 30 today, with the promise of nearly 25 additional jobs after Rogers pumps roughly $400,000 into a new manufacturing and kitchen facility.
“It’s remarkable how simultaneously rewarding and discouraging it can be to manage so many people,” Rogers said. “When you have 33 people with 33 different opinions and 33 different things to say, it has a powerful effect on your quality of sleep and how you function day to day.”
But it’s not quite the same as the original. Expansion and evolution have always been part of the BCC business plan, just like Breckenridge, yet McGuire questions the town council’s business ethics after the vote.
“It’s a dangerous precedent to set by kicking out a business,” McGuire told the Summit Daily News after the Dec. 9 vote. “Main Street since Day One has been part of our business plan, and for that to be pulled out from under us at this point, it’s been devastating. It’s part of who we are and it’s part of who the Breckenridge Cannabis Club is.”
Reflection aside, Rogers remains a touch bitter. In late January, just a week before leaving Main, he approached the town council for an emergency extension. It could take up to 60 days for a business license from the state, he told the council, which could put a major dent in his bottom line after he’d already sunk $40,000 into renovations on Airport Road. The council denied the request.
“This business had already been compliant for nearly half a decade,” Rogers said. “It was the first time the town has ever uprooted a business that had a good reputation, that was in good standing. For anyone to say that marijuana legalization and Cannabis Club in particular were causing the town harm, well, it was speculative at best. There are no facts to back that.”
For Kondelis and the CNN film crew, the Main Street vote was an unexpected storyline. “High Times” plays like the first reality show for legal weed, and like all good reality TV, a melodramatic twist can lead to weeks (aka several episodes) of heightened tension.
But it’s not as though BCC has a stranglehold on drama. Around the time Rogers and McGuire left Main, Medical Marijuana of the Rockies was likened to an organized crime operation in a federal racketeering lawsuit by the Frisco Holiday Inn — attorneys expect it to drag on for several years — and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was named in an identical suit, this one to block the construction of a grow site in Pueblo County.
“From what I’ve seen of the Colorado marijuana industry, I don’t think anyone can feel comfortable,” Kondelis said. “This industry doesn’t lend itself to comfort. But you look at everything that happened and the marijuana itself almost seems like an afterthought. Who would’ve thought that small-town politics could get so heated?”
This summer, the old BCC location will hold onto its name and astronomic rent, becoming a cannabis education center for hordes of still-curious passerby.
“The first three words of any business class are ‘location, location, location,’” Rogers said. “We’d been there for five years, and now, the sign still remains. Nothing looks different, but we have customers who are still searching for us on Main Street. We’re mitigating some of that anger by remaining in place so we can tell guests, ‘This is where to go, this is how to get what you want.’”
Again, it’s part of the BCC strategy. “Education center” becomes a clever title for a downtown billboard — visitors get directions to the new shop and a discount simply for dropping by the former dispensary.
Name change or no, the BCC brand is still tightly linked to Breckenridge. And until the town is ready to welcome retail marijuana beyond Airport Road, Rogers and McGuire will hold onto the Main Street space.
“The vision was that one day, marijuana will be legal and this is where you want to be, is in the middle of Main Street, and we managed to survive there until we were voted out,” Rogers said, then took a pause. “I think everyone should at least be happy with the way things are going. There’s no one laughing all the way to the bank.”
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