Jim Parco grew up in Pueblo. He remembers when the county had a thriving steel industry, and he witnessed the devastation of losing it. Pueblo never really recovered, and it remained one of the most economically depressed counties in the state for decades.
When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, in November 2012, Jim saw an opportunity. The Air Force lieutenant colonel moved home and started a dispensary with his wife, Pam. Since then, Pueblo County has seen an economic boom — all thanks to marijuana.
Pueblo County's retail marijuana industry has created 1,308 jobs and brought in over $2.5 million in taxes over the past two years, according to the Southern Colorado Growers Association. Despite that, anti-pot groups pushed two initiatives onto the November ballot, one at the city level and one at the county level, which would have banned all marijuana businesses. Aware of what would happen to the county if it lost another booming industry, Jim led the movement to save the marijuana market in his city and county. And last week, he won both battles.
Jim grew up next to a diner. The small building sat on the corner of Baxter Road and Santa Fe Drive on the outskirts of Pueblo. Eventually, the diner closed and changed hands, and the building became a Mexican restaurant. Then the business was foreclosed on, and the structure became vacant. The roof fell in after a severe storm, but that didn't stop vagrants and squatters from claiming the property as their own. Every time Jim was home visiting his parents, they would complain about the abandoned building next door.
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After Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, Jim and Pam decided to buy the building and turn it into a dispensary. Jim, now an economics professor at Colorado College, and his wife, a former teacher, knew nothing about marijuana or how to grow it. "I'd never even seen a cannabis plant," Jim admits.
He took a sabbatical from his job and spent four months working for no pay at a grow operation. He mopped floors, emptied buckets and helped trim the plants. Once he learned everything he could, he did his best to replicate it in his own business: Mesa Organics.
"We dumped our entire life savings, Pam quit her teaching job, and two years later, here we are," he says. "I'm a business professor and this is the new industry. Very rarely do you see a business professor who actually runs a business. I'm seeing if what I teach actually works — and it does."
The couple and their staff of five employees run the seed-to-sale operation. Pam manages the front room, often with their dog, Charlie, and the bud on the shelf comes from their own plants.
They have one room that serves as the sales floor, and in the back, there's a small extractor machine in what used to be the restaurant's kitchen. Two nearby rooms have been converted to house their plants. The operation at Mesa Organics is completely self-sufficient, and they sell the bud that they grow on site, Jim explains. "We have a license to grow, a license to manufacture, and a license to sell," he says.
Jim is proud that they've created a zero-carbon-footprint company. Most grows use butane extractors, but he doesn't trust the hydrocarbons in butane, so Mesa Organics uses a carbon-dioxide extractor. Their cultivation is a hydroponic grow; while most commercial grows use soil, they grow their plants in rocks made out of recycled glass.
Jim says he was told that commercial grows rarely use hydroponic methods, but he wanted to try it anyway and be more environmentally conscious. "This is hydroponics. You just get a much different bud structure," he says. "They blow up bigger and it smells good."
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Usually, the back rooms are clean enough to eat off the floor, but on trimming days, the floor is littered with leaves from the plants as the growers pick the bud from the stem of the plants.
"Nobody told us how to do this. We just had to figure it out ourselves," Jim says.
Jim Parco is one of many business owners in Pueblo County who created the cannabis industry there from the ground up. Marijuana was new and unknown, but the profits that have come from it made the industry worth saving.
“We were the first to open stores, open cultivation and licensing," he says. "And now we're on the heels of an economic boom."