Getting marijuana’s image off the pot in Aurora

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AURORA | Terry Yiannikis, owner of the Havana Street Station Restaurant, says there’s been scarce parking since a modern, wood-paneled pot shop opened nearby.

“And when the bingo hall next door has a $10,000 pot, the parking lot is completely full,” he says of the 230 spaces that 14 businesses share in a cramped strip mall off of one of Havana’s busy intersections at East Jewell Avenue. Medicine Man is lucky, Yiannikis says, because it has lots of parking spaces of its own, 40 to be exact.

But he’s not complaining.

Aurora's first recreational marijuana customer leaves Euflora with a bag full of goodies Oct. 13 near East Smoky Hill Road and South Gun Club Road. The city began allowing recreation sales on Oct. 1 but Euflora was the first story to open up doors to customers today. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)Before Medicine Man renovated the building it’s in to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it sat completely vacant and was becoming an eyesore.

“I think any good viable business on Havana Street is going to do nothing but help resurrect this entire area,” he says. “We know it’s going to be a good draw for us just because of the nature of the beast. You know if they come stoned, they’re going to be hungry.”

But Medicine Man still has an image problem to overcome to be fully embraced by the Havana Business Improvement District of which it is now a formal member. One of the city’s most successful business districts, the Havana BID spans a 4.3-mile stretch from East Sixth Avenue to East Dartmouth Avenue and includes more than 500 businesses, many of them small and immigrant-owned.

More than a year into Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana, pot shops have opened in the heart of commercial centers like Aurora’s bustling Havana Street, no longer hiding in warehouses next to state highways.

“Even though recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, we are still having to tread lightly and go slowly with any association with marijuana businesses here in town,” says Gayle Jetchick, the district’s executive director.

She says when Medicine Man wanted to sponsor the district’s annual Grocery Cart Races, which benefit Aurora’s only homeless shelter run by Comitis, the offer was turned down because marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Comitis and other community organizations just don’t think accepting the money is worth the risk of having their nonprofit status revoked, she says.

That fear was confirmed by Comitis spokesman James Gillesipe.

“Though we appreciate the intent to help us serve the homeless community, we would not put our agency at risk of possibly breaking a federal law for financial gain,” he says.

It’s a disheartening though not surprising response for Sally Vander Meer, Medicine Man’s controller and sister of owners Pete and Andy Williams.  She says the company also tried to donate 10 percent of its sales from a grand opening celebration to a local nonprofit, but instead ended up donating the money to one in Denver.

“We looked for an Aurora charity, but no one wanted to take our money because we’re a marijuana company. That was frustrating,” she says. “There’s still that stigma associated with marijuana consumption. If we were Coors coming in and building a new distribution center, there would be cheering.”

Bob Hoban, whose law firm represents nearly 100 medical marijuana businesses in Colorado, says the belief that nonprofits can’t accept marijuana money has no precedent.

At least  he’s never seen a case where a Colorado nonprofit lost its status from accepting money tied to legal weed.

“I think it’s a fear more than anything else,” he says. “It’s not a founded fear. What I’ve found is many folks in other jurisdictions have to (donate) another way, through a block grant, through sponsorship directly to another town or city, or through funding their own marketing campaign in order to give back to the community.”

Jetchick says she hasn’t given up on Medicine Man yet.

“My board did give me the go-ahead to work with Medicine Man on a minor sponsorship of our August concert,” she says. That still would need an OK from the Aurora Symphony Orchestra.

Norman Gamboa, the symphony’s conductor says he would be open to the idea. That’s as long as it is approved by the organization’s board of directors as the symphony is also a nonprofit.

“We would have to check with our lawyer to see what the implications would be if we accept sponsorship from this kind of enterprise,” he says. “It’s legal in the state, and I don’t see why something that is permitted by the local government shouldn’t be allowed to participate as any other enterprise does in the state.”