Ridgway: The (cleaner) Gateway to the San Juans, thanks to marijuana

Since its creation as a railway headquarters for the Rio Grande Southern Railroad in 1890, the town of Ridgway has often found itself dependent on the traffic that heads through on the way to nearby Telluride and Ouray.

That played somewhat in the town’s concession to allow retail marijuana shops to open in 2014. The more folks through town, the more likely they would stop.

Yet despite the ensured steady stream of customers, each of them contributing to the sales-tax coffers, the Town Council chose not to impose extra taxes on marijuana businesses.

“The interesting thing is that the Town Council, when it decided to allow and regulate the marijuana operations, the conversation wasn’t so much about tax revenues and what it could do,” said Jennifer Coates, the town manager, “but rather looked to the needs and wants of the community and the ballot question. It was focused more on desires than on tax revenues.”

Ridgway, a town of about 930, in 2014 had an annual budget of just $1.4 million fueled mostly from a 3.6 percent local sales tax. It wasn’t long before the budget grew to nearly double that amount, largely because of those new marijuana businesses.

Ridgway, Colorado is seen from above ...

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Ridgway, Colorado is seen from above on Nov. 29, 2018.

Last year the town collected $214,476 in marijuana taxes, and total sales tax revenues from all sources has topped $1 million annually since 2016, Coates said.

But rather than hunker down with a specific plan on how to spend the extra dollars, the council instead has taken on different projects as the needs have arisen and looked to the marijuana bucks as the way to get them done. This way no one is caught short relying too heavily on a revenue stream that promises to be mercurial.

“I think it’s a fair description to call it Christmas money,” Coates said.

Probably the most important use of the marijuana tax dollars was hiring a new town planner in April 2017 and a broadband infrastructure plan that’s likely to finish in 2019.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Shay Coburn, the Ridgway Town Planner, poses for a portrait in her office in Ridgway.

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