The owner of Talkeetna's only marijuana shop wants to expand his operations into a downtown Anchorage building across from Nordstrom, with the idea of putting an Alaska mountaineering and aviation museum and gallery on the ground floor and a dispensary upstairs.
Some neighbors say it's a great idea, but the problem is the location: There's an alternative high school for troubled teenagers a few blocks away, too close under city zoning law.
Meanwhile, other neighbors question whether there could be too many pot shops in downtown Anchorage. Three marijuana stores are open downtown and three more are taking final steps to open.
The proposal comes from Joe McAneney, who owns the High Expedition, the first and so far only pot shop in Talkeetna. He said he wants to call the museum and gallery "The Legendaries" and display photographs, prints and memorabilia of Ray Genet, a Denali climbing pioneer, and Don Sheldon, a famous Alaska bush pilot. He said he also hopes the collection will include vintage prints from photographer Bradford Washburn, a scientist and cartographer who was the first to map the Alaska Range.
By emphasizing a museum and gallery that caters to tourists, McAneney is hopeful he can encourage neighbors to allow him to open closer to the school than the law allows.
"Look at this amazing Alaska history, look at what we're trying to do in downtown," McAneney said. "It's a shame to have it all go away because I can't get a small variance for the shop."
To win support for his store in Talkeetna, McAneney drummed up the historic location, a log cabin that housed Genet's guide service. Genet's face is on McAneney's store logo, and McAneney referred to the store as "a Ray Genet museum that sells cannabis."
McAneney has brought a similar playbook to Anchorage. The building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and D Street, previously occupied by Crush Wine Bistro, used to house the office of famed aviator Bob Reeve of Reeve Aviation Airways, McAneney said. Of the 3,700 square foot building, the marijuana shop would take up about 400 feet, with the rest dedicated to the museum and gallery, McAneney said.
The museum and gallery would be family-friendly, McAneney said. The upstairs pot shop, meanwhile, would only be open to people 21 and older.
McAneney, who lives in Talkeetna, has been leasing the building since December and traveling regularly to Anchorage for community meetings.
For his proposal to have any chance with the city's elected representatives, McAneney needs support from the Downtown Community Council. He said he's planning to make a formal presentation in early June.
At a recent meeting of the council's marijuana and alcohol committee, council members had some questions.
City law measures the allowed distance between marijuana shops and schools as a straight line, instead of by walking distance. That puts McAneney's proposed business within 500 feet of the Anchorage Vocational Academic Institute of Learning, also known as AVAIL, a small alternative high school on the first floor of the Fifth Avenue parking garage. The school serves about 100 students who dropped out of traditional schools.
One pot business, Green Room AK, is already located within 500 feet of the school, based on the city's measuring methods. But that business began its application before the city passed new restrictions on distances to schools, said city planner Ryan Yelle.
At the council's committee meeting, downtown council member Russ Reno said he was a big fan of McAneney's idea for a museum. But he said he was wary of setting a precedent in city zoning law and wanted McAneney to provide more information. McAneney would be the first marijuana operator in Anchorage to seek a zoning exception.
Elected representatives and downtown leaders echoed Reno's concerns.
"Personally, I think it's a pretty great business idea," said Christopher Constant, the Anchorage Assemblyman representing downtown. "I think they're stuck though, because the land use in that area is just not going to allow it."
Jamie Boring, the executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, praised the marijuana businesses that are already open downtown, saying they were well-maintained, brightly lit and tightly secured. But Boring said he doubted any downtown businesses would support an exception to the current rules while the industry is still so new.
There's also a parallel concern about the number of pot businesses downtown, Constant said. There are currently three pot shops in downtown Anchorage, but three more have conditional approval. On one stretch of Fifth Avenue, one shop is open, another is on track to open and a third is in the application process, all within a few hundred feet.
At Wednesday's downtown council committee meeting, Silvia Villamides, the chair of the committee, said she was pro-business. But Villamides also said there had been an outcry about six months ago over a perception that pot businesses were flooding downtown. Council member Patrick McDonnell, who lives downtown, said he was trying to consider what a concentration of pot shops would mean for downtown residents.
McAneney brought to the meeting a presentation he'd created to argue there was a denser concentration of pot shops in downtown Eugene, Oregon and Denver, Colorado, than in Anchorage. There's also very limited real estate downtown, McAneney said.
He said the market would decide which of the shops survived.
"These businesses, they should be welcome," McAneney said. "If there are 100 in downtown Anchorage, it does not mean more people smoke weed, it means a free market and people are going to go out of business."