The city of Denver has been trying for months to track down the owners of a marijuana dispensary — targets of a federal drug investigation — to give them more than $23,000.
The money is what’ s left of the sum Denver agreed to pay VIP Wellness Center to relocate one of its grow locations early last year to make way for a massive construction project.
The city has already paid VIP’s owners — Luis Uribe and his cousin Carlos Solano — more than $30,000 to move about 1,000 marijuana plants to southwest Denver from where they were growing at the Peoria Street warehouse.
VIP had been renting part of a former tire-storage warehouse on the city’s north side to grow the marijuana it sold, but the land was in the footprint of the Peoria Crossing, a $50 million overpass construction project on Peoria Street to bypass railroad tracks just south of the Interstate 70 interchange.
Using eminent domain, the city bought the property and building at 3739 Peoria St. in December 2012 for $1.5 million from owners Sims/Roady LLC.
Although the city had paid $1.4 million toward the purchase, it waited four months to record the deed because, according to records and interviews, Denver didn’t want to be landlord to a marijuana business.
No other property acquired for the Peoria Crossing project shows a delay longer than three days from the time a property was purchased to the time the deed was recorded, records show.
On top of that, the city paid thousands of dollars to relocate a business whose owners were the target of a number of federal drug raids that seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana just seven months after the deal officially closed.
In fact, the city in theory risked losing the property — and the taxpayer money used to buy it and to relocate the medical marijuana grow — to federal forfeiture had those raids occurred at the Peoria Street warehouse, according to experts familiar with those laws.
“There was something about them not wanting to collect the rent from the medical marijuana people. They wanted it to go to us,” said Helen Sims, co-owner of the property with the longtime business partner of her late husband, Richard. Richard Sims and Ken Roady ran Sims Tire for years and built the warehouse for inventory storage.
“They (the city) didn’t want the rent on their books,” Sims recalled.
Denver Councilman Christopher Herndon, whose district includes Peoria Crossing, said it mattered little that the relocated business was a marijuana-grow facility.
“What business is there is irrelevant,” he said. “When doing acquisitions, the city doesn’t want to be a landlord. And as a legal business, we are required to move them.”
Businesses impacted by the eminent-domain acquisition of land for public projects must be relocated at taxpayer expense beyond what is paid to buy their properties. Denver had set aside about $13 million for land acquisition and relocation costs related to Peoria Crossing.
And although more than a dozen properties in Peoria Crossing’s footprint were purchased — some in Denver and some in Aurora — VIP’s location had a number of unique problems.
Most sensitive was that the marijuana operation was illegal under federal law and Peoria Crossing is funded in part with federal dollars.
Paying to relocate VIP would be tricky.
Denver used city funds to pay $1.4 million to Sims/Roady LLC in late December 2012 but didn’t record the title transfer until April, property records show.
And although the city signed an escrow agreement that said Sims/Roady remained the owner — and collected rents as landlord — until the sale was recorded, it had already handed over the bulk of the money.
“The owner asked to be paid before the end of 2012 for tax purposes — so to accommodate him, we paid for the property in December,” Public Works Department spokeswoman Emily Williams wrote in an e-mail to The Denver Post.
The rate at which capital gains were taxed was to change Jan. 1, 2013, and the landowners didn’t want to pay the higher rate.
“We wanted it closed in 2012,” Roady said from his retirement home in Phoenix. “They couldn’t get it done, so we asked to be paid for the tax benefit.”
Records kept by the Peoria Crossing project show there was a rush to close the deal that December, and increased pressure to move VIP out by then. When VIP hadn’t moved, the deal couldn’t close.
But the city paid the landowners anyway.
“The agreement ensured Sims/Roady would remain acting as landlord until the tenants were relocated, it allowed the tenants time to relocate, and gave the city the right to decide when the property deed would be released and recorded as City property,” Williams wrote.
With $1.4 million in hand, Roady and Sims said they felt the property wasn’t theirs any longer, even though they continued to collect about $8,000 a month in rent from VIP and an auto-repair shop next door.
“Who takes $1.4 million to sell something and still owns it?” Roady mused.
An e-mail from Sims/Roady attorney Douglas Widlund to his clients during the negotiation phase seems to explain what happened:
“Denver decided last night at a meeting that the City cannot close on the property with the pot shop in place,” Widlund wrote in late October 2012. “Denver believes it cannot be lessor to a tenant that is operating a business that is illegal under federal law. This is the first we’ve heard of this situation from Denver.”
The result, he wrote, was that “we are left with waiting on a closing until the pot shop is out.”
Sims/Roady continued collecting rent, albeit at a reduced rate because the businesses in the warehouse — a Goodyear shop rented another portion of it — knew they had to leave.
“It was crazy,” Goodyear shop owner Marc Mager recalled. “One second, the city says to get out. The next, it’s wait. Then, it’s get out again.”
For Mager, the nightmare wasn’t having to rush and find a new location — he had purchased the parcel located just behind the warehouse — but was having to honor his lease with Sims/Roady while covering a mortgage on a new location.
“I’m out about $50,000 for all that and only because we did what we were told to do — get out,” he said, explaining he took the city’s word about leaving by the planned December 2012 closing.
VIP subleased warehouse space at 3739 Peoria St. from Remedy Care Center, which Uribe also owned, to grow the plants for VIP’s larger locations, city marijuana-licensing records show.
Remedy leased the space at $5,000 a month from Sims/Roady.
The rent dropped to $3,000 a month in mid-2012, when the city said it was planning to take the property, records show.
The records also show managers at H.C. Peck & Associates, the Denver firm hired by the city to handle the Peoria Crossing land acquisitions, at one point seriously considered buying the pot plants outright — more than 800 at the time — and destroying them in order to get VIP moved and the purchase closed in December.
“Peck is exploring the possibility of purchasing the medical marijuana plants on site in order to facilitate this business relocation,” according to a note in VIP’s relocation file dated Oct. 19, 2012.
The problem, according to records, was the delicacy of the marijuana plants. Grown in tightly controlled conditions, any move could kill them — potentially at a cost of millions of dollars.
Records show the idea of buying the plants was nixed before any value to the pot was provided.
Plans for the move dragged on. Records show HC Peck made repeated efforts to contact Uribe, who was often “out of the country” or whose telephone numbers didn’t work.
Visits to VIP’s main location on Federal Boulevard also proved futile, and messages were unreturned.
The times Uribe did contact the city, progress was small, records show.
Last March, the Colorado Department of Transportation revisited the idea of buying — and destroying — the plants.
“They are working with the (district attorney’s) office to find a ‘better’ way to … pay for and destroy the medical marijuana plants,” notes in HC Peck files show.
The project managers eventually opted to pay VIP to move the plants. With the delay, the inventory had grown to nearly 1,000 plants.
A month after the deal was recorded, the city paid Uribe — and not VIP — for moving the plants.
“VIP would like to have all relocation payments made payable to Luis Uribe due to accounting reasons,” HC Peck wrote the city.
When the sale finally closed in April, the city made its final payment of $83,000 — $100,000, minus property tax and utility expenses — to Sims/Roady.
When the city paid Uribe on May 13, 2013, for moving the marijuana plants, it discussed “remaining relocation benefits” to cover the $23,452 VIP paid to move its lighting equipment and tables to a leased storage unit.
It was the last time the city had contact with Uribe, despite repeated efforts to locate him, most recently in February, records show.
Federal authorities in November raided a number of locations with ties to Uribe and Solano, listing the men among 10 “target subjects.”
The location along South Jason Street where VIP had moved the marijuana plants months before was not among those raided, and today the building is empty.
Authorities have said in court papers that Uribe’s older brother, Gerardo, allegedly heads the organization it’s investigating, although no charges have been filed against the businesses or their owners.
“They were nice, clean-cut fellows,” Sims said of the Uribes and Solano. “They usually paid their rent on time, and the rent was good.”
Still, she said, having a pot operation as a tenant wasn’t an easy sell for her.
“I didn’t want to get into it and I remember being talked into it,” she said. “It’s dirty money and I didn’t like it. I was so relieved the city got us out of it, a blessing, because it bothered me that we risked losing it all at any time. “
David Migoya: 303-954-1506, email@example.com or twitter.com/davidmigoya