Felix Belczyk hobbles into the empty store, heading for the light switch. It’s a slow process on crutches.
“This broken leg keeps me focused on business instead of looking at the mountains all the time,” he jokes, flipping on the lights to reveal what could soon be Castlegar’s first recreational cannabis shop.
Belczyk, a former World Cup and Olympic downhill skier, got his injury while guiding back country skiers in December. While it has kiboshed his ski season, he’s now freed up for the huge task of getting the store’s doors open.
“Surprisingly it can go pretty quick from where we are right now to have an operational store,” he says, looking at the bare drywall and a pile of two-by-fours on the ground.
“It can be done in two weeks. Once we have the licence, it just needs paint.”
Belczyk and his business partner, Ben Conroy (son of Castlegar MLA Katrine Conroy), are the proponents behind Spiritleaf, one of three recreational cannabis stores approved by Castlegar city council at its last council meeting.
Spiritleaf’s application has gone back to the province after being approved by the city. If the province gives its final approval, the application goes back to the city one last time for a business licence.
No one knows how long the process will take, but Belczyk hopes to have the store open in February.
“Our company tag line is: The start of something incredible,” he says. “It’s a brand new world, a new time, and there’s going to be a lot of learning and a lot of changes that will happen in the next little while.”
That’s certainly been the case for Belczyk, a homegrown ski hero who returned to Castlegar about three years ago after a career in sports and business.
Seeing opportunity in the legalization of marijuana, he began scoping out business opportunities in the nascent industry.
“Growing up in the Kootenays, everyone who’s been in this area knows weed has played a big role economically,” he says. “Down deep somewhere you might have thought it was a possibility that there was [business potential]. But of course, now that it’s legal and above board, it’s much more appealing.”
Belczyk and Conroy are actually franchisees — Spiritleaf is a chain of retail shops with stores in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with ambitions to expand across the country.
With plans of “becoming Canada’s leading and most trusted source of recreational cannabis,” as its website says, Spiritleaf’s goal is to normalize marijuana use.
Belczyk says the way Spiritleaf was marketing its stores appealed to him.
“I did research in a number of different areas and liked the way they were presenting themselves and positioning themselves in the market and it made a lot of sense to me,” he says.
“Cannabis still has a stigma. We want to make ourselves an extremely comfortable place, so that no matter who you are or from what walk of life, or your age or demographic, you’ll be comfortable walking into the store.”
Spiritleaf will provide the Castlegar store with its logos, design specs, marketing, cash registers and other equipment.
Belczyk and Conroy don’t have to worry about suppliers or products — it’s all shipped to them pre-chosen, pre-tested and in pre-packaged form. They just have to provide the shop and the staff to answer questions from customers.
To that end, the company has already posted ads to hire up to 10 people (‘concierges,’ as the company calls its staff) for the store. Belczyk, who’s run franchises before — he operated a bar and a ski lodge — says it’s fun being on the ground floor of a new business.
“They are brand new. So when we decided to join the Spiritleaf team it was with great excitement, as every person was a new member of the team,” he says. “So in that way it has been very exciting and they have been a great partner to work with.”
If anything, his past experience with business and government has taught him to be patient with the long approval process for licensing.
“To a certain extent I expected it to be more difficult than not,” he says. “Certainly every step has been long and tedious. I guess the due diligence part has been done to a very high standard. But we just sort of decided we would plug along at the pace it took, and that’s how we are going to tackle it.”
He says it probably helped the approval process that both he and Conroy are locals.
“Our neighbours have been very welcoming. We have Roots on one side, and Dragonflies and Fairy Dust on the other,” he says, smiling. “We fit into the neighbourhood.”