Relocating Red Canyon High School would displace longtime marijuana business
EAGLE — Eagle County Schools’ aggressive building program is underway, and it includes a provision to find a new home for Red Canyon High School’s Eagle campus.
However, one of the options under consideration is concerning for town of Eagle officials, nearby business operators and even federal agency representatives.
Tuesday night, representatives from Eagle County Schools met with Eagle Town Board members to float the idea of the school district purchasing a vacant 22,000-square-foot building located in the Eagle Commercial and Industrial Park to house Red Canyon High School. Approved in 2011 and opened in 2013 as a Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters union training facility, the building only served that purpose for a short period of time and has been vacant for several months.
Jeff Chamberlain, of RLH Engineering, is working as the construction projects manager for Eagle County Schools’ $144 million building program. He noted this is the second time the school district has eyed the building. Originally, the district considered the site to house its transportation operation, but ultimately rejected the location for that use because there is only a single way to enter and exit the site, and if Chambers Avenue was shut down, then the school district would have no access to its bus fleet. Ultimately, the district decided to purchase the former Integra Auto building and site to house its transportation department.
However, Chamberlain said the district has circled back to consideration of the carpenter’s union building as a home for Red Canyon. The proposal is economically appealing — for what it would cost to build a roughly 9,000-square-foot new building for Red Canyon, the school district could purchase the existing 22,000-square-foot structure. In addition to providing classroom space, school district representatives noted the carpenters’ union building would allow Red Canyon to expand its vocational education program and the school district could replace the school board room that will be lost when the new Eagle Valley Elementary School construction demolishes the existing administration services building, located at the Third Street campus in Eagle.
Those are the pros for the site. But there is also a significant negative impact associated with the site. If Red Canyon were to locate there, then Eagle’s existing marijuana business, as well as a new approved but not yet built operation, would be jeopardized.
Sweet Leaf Pioneer, a retail and medical marijuana business that has been open for nearly eight years, is located directly across the street from the carpenter’s union building. Tumbleweed, a second marijuana operation, is slated to open in a building under construction adjacent to the site. Eagle’s zoning rules, which mirror the state’s regulations, say that marijuana businesses cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a school building.
While the town and the state could grandfather the marijuana businesses to continue operations if Red Canyon opened at the carpenters’ union building, federal government enforcement would be a concern. Eagle Town Attorney Ed Sands said federal officials issued cease and desist orders to marijuana businesses in Denver that were located within 1,000 feet of schools.
“It is impossible to predict where the federal government is headed with marijuana enforcement,” Sands said.
Dave Manzanares, owner of Sweet Leaf Pioneer, said opening Red Canyon at the carpenters’ union building would likely close his business.
“It is detrimental to our company if you move in there,” Manzanares told the school officials. “We would have to shut down long before we heard from the feds.”
Additionally, Dieneka Manzanares noted that Sweet Leaf would be hard pressed to find an alternate location if the school moved in across the street. Because marijuana businesses are not legally recognized by the federal government, the operations are shut out from the banking industry. That means shop owners have to either own their spaces outright or lease space from an owner who does not carry a bank loan on his or her property. Properties that fit that description aren’t easy to find, she said.
But regardless of what the neighbors or the town thinks, the school district can move forward with the building purchase and the school relocation because state law says the district doesn’t have to comply with town zoning regarding where it locates facilities.
Don’t need to ask
As Sands advised the town board members Tuesday night, Eagle doesn’t have the authority to nix the Red Canyon plan if that’s what the school district decided to do.
As they spoke with town members, school district officials stressed they are just exploring the carpenters’ union building possibility.
“We have been doing our due diligence, looking for a location for the students of Red Canyon High School,” said Sandy Mutchler, Eagle County Schools chief operating officer.
“This is not a comfortable discussion or an easy one to have,” Chamberlain added.
In response to the proposal, town officials stressed their support for Red Canyon but noted they would really prefer seeing the school located at a different site.
“I feel a responsibility as a trustee and a citizen to show a little loyalty to the business that’s already there,” said town board member Matt Solomon.
“The town would like to get that building occupied, but this option presents some challenges,” Mayor Anne McKibbin said.
“We love having Red Canyon High School here and we would love to keep it here, but I don’t think this is the best spot for it,” said town board member Paul Witt.
All of the Eagle Town Board members weighed in with the advice to find a different alternative for Red Canyon, and a representative from another Eagle County community also urged the school district to find another option.
What about Minturn?
Willy Powell, former Eagle Town manager and current interim Minturn town manager, noted the U.S. Forest Service has also eyed the carpenters’ union building as a site where it could consolidate its Eagle County operations. Minturn supports that plan because it would free up the exiting Forest Service Dowd Junction site for development. That would, in turn, increase Minturn’s sales tax prospects.
Powell said if the Forest Service relocates to the carpenters’ union building, it would also be a boon for Eagle because the community would gain 40 to 50 new jobs.
“This is an argument we need to take to the board of education, not to you guys, and we intend to do that,” Powell said.
While acknowledging the school district can proceed with its plans regardless of what town officials think, members of the town board thanked school representatives for presenting the proposal.
“Your good faith in coming to talk with us is appreciated,” McKibbin said.
“This is just about making sure we are listening and hearing all of the concerns presented so we can make a good decision,” Chamberlain said.
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