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Marijuana industry helping some small towns survive

EMPIRE, Colo. – Colorado’s $1 billion marijuana industry is helping some small towns stay afloat. A prime example is the town of Empire, in Clear Creek County.

The town has about 400 residents but has fewer than 10 businesses, according to Town Trustee Richard Sprague.

Sprague said three businesses closed in 2015, decreasing sales tax revenue for the town.

“Towns like this live on sales tax,” Sprague said.

According to Sprague, the town receives about $100,000 in sales tax revenue each year. A good chunk of that money comes from its two cannabis dispensaries.

“We have two shops in town and thank goodness. They’re paying the sales tax and helping us stay afloat,” Sprague said.

Not everyone in town supports legalized marijuana, but the fact is it’s helping maintain things in Empire.

“I took a building that was 140 years old, restored it during an economic downturn, gave local people jobs and started a local sales tax stream,” said Dan Volpe, owner of Serene Wellness.

Volpe owns the two dispensaries in Empire. He said the town welcomed him when he entered the community in 2010.

“I really wanted to make sure we made this town appealing,” he said.

Without Volpe’s dispensaries, town leaders said Empire would have a tough time getting by.

“If we were to lose [the dispensaries] on top of everything else, we may not have anyone doing maintenance in this town. It may be strictly volunteer,” Sprague said.

Dispensary licenses are hot commodities in mountain towns, according to Dynama Consulting, a marijuana consulting group based in Denver.

“There’s no doubt there’s a noticeable benefit to any town’s sales tax revenue when they allow for the legal market,” said Lauren Harris, owner of Dynama Consulting. “I think there are several reasons shops are moving into small towns -- regulations are more lax, less competition, cheaper to get into the market.”

Volpe couldn’t agree more. In Empire, he discovered a mutually beneficial relationship.

“Overall, it’s really amazing and to be honest with you, it’s a little bit of a heavy responsibility to really feel we have so many dependent on what we do,” Volpe said.

In Colorado, counties and cities share $135 million of state tax revenue each year.