Can The Pot Economy Replace Pueblo's Lost Blue Collar Jobs?

Feb 9, 2015

Drive through the outskirts of Pueblo, Colorado, and you'll see the remnants of a steel economy -- giant, empty brick buildings with towering smokestacks and parking lots with crumbling asphalt.

The southern Colorado town has a well-known industrial history -- its nickname, Steel City, says it all. But since 1982, when the steel market crashed, the area's economy has been more precarious, tied to the ebbs and flows of manufacturing industries like the Vestas windmill facility. Pueblo's third largest employer, after the school district and an area medical center, is Walmart, which isn't exactly full of high-wage jobs.

Now, there's a new industry in town, marijuana growing and processing. Whether you're a construction worker, a realtor, or a businessman looking to invest in the marijuana economy, chances are you believe your region's economic fortune is turning -- because of weed.

Unlike many parts of Colorado, Pueblo County allows outdoor growing in greenhouses and open-air facilities. This, coupled with low land and property prices, make the area a relative bargain for ganjapreneurs, said Sal Pace, a Pueblo County Commissioner who has overseen the area's foray into the marijuana economy.

A greenhouse west of Pueblo, Colorado. It is growing about four acres of marijuana inside. Jobs in greenhouse growing pay well, around $18 an hour to start, say those in industry.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

"So what we see is a lot of folks who have businesses in Denver, Boulder, other parts of the state where they retail, but they are coming down to Pueblo for the affordable land, the availability of water and the ability to be able to cultivate at a lot lower prices," said Pace.

The climate is good too -- Pueblo's in Colorado's "Banana Belt," with more sun, warmer temperatures, and less snow than much of the Front Range.

Outdoor grows, (including greenhouses) allow growers to spend less on lighting and climate controls. Weed grown this way can cost about a third as much as a warehouse-grown product. And while warehouses make up for that by enabling multiple harvests, if space is not an issue, growing outdoors can save money.

Pueblo County has retail and medical sales facilities as well, but the real growth, said Chris Markuson, economic development director for the county, is in grows.

On a rare rainy day in January, Markuson drove around an area called Pueblo West, pointing out new growing facilities in an industrial park, next to glass replacement shops and computer repair stores.

"So this building here, you can see it's brand new, and it's not occupied yet, but it's slated to be a marijuana facility," he said. Driving another mile or so into another business park, there are a few more.

Further afield, west past Lake Pueblo State Park and in a land of ranches and pinon-juniper scrubs, Markuson drives past a set of greenhouses. Covering about four acres, they are full of weed. From the road, you can't tell -- they could be growing flowers, lettuce, or hothouse tomatoes.

Those greenhouses are what's keeping folks like Frank Genova, Jr., employed. The past decade has been tough, said Genova. Since marijuana's legalization, though, "our business on the construction side has been through the roof," he said.

"We're doing better now than we've done the last 10 years."

Genova is working on a 60,000-square foot greenhouse right now. It requires a lot of high-end electrical and HVAC work -- lots of jobs for subcontractors he works with. It's skilled labor, too, said Genova.

"You basically gut an entire building out because in the marijuana industry, anyone who knows anything about it is that the standards are very high," said Genova. "It's more like building hospital type grade stuff than building a warehouse."

Local businessman and head of the new marijuana growers association Tommy Giadone stands outside of a former ice cream shop he is renovating into a grow shop and retail facility.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

The boom involves more than just construction and jobs tending plants. Tommy Giadone, is a local businessman who, in addition to running a restaurant and a music festival, also recently started as head of the new Southern Colorado Growers Association.

Giadone's family has been in Pueblo for generations. After seeing big industries, including Anheuser-Busch and a Walmart distribution center, pass the area by, Giadone sees marijuana as the area's chance for an economic renaissance.

"I'd love to see Pueblo be the hub of research and development for medical marijuana and refineries for the oil, and also be a leader in the hemp cultivation," he said.

Markuson, the economic development head, envisions a world where marijuana is legal nationally, and products are regulated by the federal government and have to meet strict quality standards. The region, with its existing experience and expertise could be a national leader in laboratory and manufacturing work, as well as R&D, he said.

"I think that Pueblo is really poised to be the Silicon Valley of marijuana compliance."

Jobs in marijuana pay well, too. A low-end position starts at around $18 an hour, say those in the industry. Household incomes in the area range from $29,000 in the town of Pueblo to $39,000 for a family in the county."We see the vast majority of the wages from folks [in marijuana] paying oftentimes double that," said Markuson.

There's still opposition to marijuana in Pueblo -- but a lot of folks are also coming around, he said. After all, the grows are fairly inconspicuous, the neighborhoods haven't deteriorated, and the county brought in half a million dollars in taxes for 2014, not to mention the hefty licensing fees growers pay.

Even Frank Genova, Jr. had his doubts at first. The contractor was wary about being involved in what was once an illegal business. His views, he said, have changed.

"Basically every person that works with me would tell you the same thing," he said. "They have a family at home and kids to feed and it doesn't matter if it's for the marijuana industry or if they are building a library or a house. If it is work and it's keeping them employed they are going to be happy with it."