Photo by Angel Parker

The bus depot in Alamogordo, N.M., once served as the community hub for the rural town of roughly 32,000 people. Residents gathered out front to discuss the news, marvel at the weather and count the buses that came and went.

As long-distance bus travel in the U.S. became less popular, so did Alamogordo’s depot. Eventually it closed, leaving behind an empty parking lot full of memories.

Rodriguez, CEO and founder of Ultra Health and an Alamogordo High School alumnus (Class of ’75), suspects more than gossip was exchanged at the depot.

“One can naturally assume that there were probably black-market marijuana transactions occurring at that bus depot,” Rodriguez says.

Today, Rodriguez facilitates legal marijuana transactions at the location. On Aug. 29, Ultra Health opened its eighth medical marijuana dispensary in the old, 1,200-square-foot Alamogordo bus depot with the goal of resurrecting it as a community gathering place.

A Plan to Expand Upon

Ultra Health is a vertically integrated, seed-to-sale medical cannabis company founded in 2012. With nine locations (Ultra Health opened its ninth dispensary just before this issue went to press) across seven counties, the company operates more dispensaries than any other medical cannabis provider in the state. But Rodriguez is only getting started.

“We have publicly stated to stakeholders, including the New Mexico Department of Health, that it is our vision to have some form of cannabis service in all 33 counties,” Rodriguez says.

Opening the Alamogordo location in Otero County moved Ultra Health closer to achieving that goal. More importantly, however, Rodriguez saw in Alamogordo a rural community with an “unaddressed demand” and patients in need of quality, local medicinal options.

“One of our missions is to improve access across the state,” says Marissa Novel, Ultra Health’s communications manager. “We like to reach out to those rural communities that would have to drive several hours or even through border patrol checkpoints just to find their dispensary.”

“We have publicly stated to stakeholders, including the New Mexico Department of Health, that it is our vision to have some form of cannabis service in all 33 counties,” says Duke Rodriguez, CEO and founder, of Ultra Health.
Photo by Stephon Edwards

Perseverance to Dispense Medicine

Ultra Health’s new location sits at the town’s nucleus on White Sands Boulevard (Alamogordo’s busiest road), and offers plenty of parking. The low-height, orange-red and tan concrete-tiled structure, traditional of a desert-town, is juxtaposed with signage of the company’s modern, bright white and blue logo. Rodriguez had known it’d be ideal location for his business. But opening its doors wasn’t easy.

Once the company secured the building from the landlord, Rodriguez engaged local political leaders in discussions, and in May 2016, submitted its license amendment to the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH).

The state rejected the amendment. Rodriguez was undeterred.

“We ... decided on our own to bear the risk,” Rodriguez says. “We began architectural drawings, made deposits on the lease, and then we were allowed to analyze it for 90 days without any rent commitment.” At the end of the 90 days, Rodriguez still hadn’t received state approval, but again elected to proceed.

According to Rodriguez, the NMDOH declined Ultra Health’s licensing amendment over concern of whether Ultra Health would be able to meet the needs of an increasing number of outlying locations and supply enough product to sustain the facilities. Ultra Health prefers to grow and sell its own product, but was willing to compromise.

“We agreed to demonstrate to the state an ability to buy wholesale, which we did. And we demonstrated that we had adequate reserves to make these acquisitions,” Rodriguez says. Ultra Health even proved its ability to finance all construction and remodeling in-house.

Rodriguez enlisted the community to pressure the NMDOH to approve Ultra Health’s amendment. He was determined to prove to the state that Alamogordo residents not only wanted, but needed, the dispensary.

“We got local political leaders to call the state, and residents began to call the state and demand their Alamogordo location,” Rodriguez says. Finally, more than a year after Ultra Health submitted its licensing amendment, it was approved. “There is no question that local community support had a big part in getting that amendment released.”

Down to Business

With state approval secured, Rodriguez focused on marketing. Ultra Health bet on what some might call an unconventional marketing tactic for 2017: radio advertisements. The spots focused not only on the availability of medical cannabis, but also on how to obtain a medical marijuana card. “We’re becoming quite an informational source,” Rodriguez says. “Besides just saying, ‘buy from us,’ we’re also saying, ‘let’s help educate the community.’ ” Before the dispensary opened, there were approximately 850 medical cardholders in Otero County. At press time, that number had climbed to roughly 1,000 since the clinic opened.

To gain the public’s trust, it was crucial that the Alamogordo dispensary aligned with the moral fabric of the district. To maintain this philosophy, Ultra Health had to be especially particular when hiring.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: CBD topicals on display; a patient during a transaction; an employee weighing flower; various flower cultivars for sale.
Photos by Angel Parker

Every Ultra Health location has one general manager. Rodriguez hires for this position someone who has a history of community involvement. He or she must possess a positive reputation and be viewed as someone willing to give back to the neighborhood. “That goes a long way in building relationships,” Rodriguez says. “You have to be sensitive to make sure that this is somebody that people will trust and respect.”

Once hired, the manager then recruits a team. A typical Ultra Health location, like Alamogordo, which is open nearly 365 days a year, staffs six to eight full- and part-time employees. The manager can employ whomever he or she chooses so long as they represent the community.

“If that community is more hip and artsy like Santa Fe, then the staff has to reflect that community. If it’s a more outlying and rural area like Alamogordo, the employee base has to represent … its client base,” Rodriguez says.

After Rodriguez had his Alamogordo team in place, the dispensary held a community-wide open house before any of its 1,000-plus SKUs-which include edibles, flower, concentrates, vapes, tinctures and topicals-were allowed in the facility. Local civic groups, law enforcement and representatives from the mayor’s office all attended, says Rodriguez. A “very visible” grand opening followed.

“All those things resulted in our strongest opening,” Rodriguez says. “The store had the single largest sales day of any store we’ve had to date.”

September was Alamogordo’s first full month of business, and according to early indicators, it is likely to be Ultra Health’s most profitable dispensary. The clinic is projected to open at roughly $3 million annually in a community of less than 35,000 people.

“We like to reach out to those rural communities that would have to drive several hours or even through border patrol checkpoints just to find their dispensary.” Marissa Novel, communications manager, Ultra Health

But savvy marketing isn’t the sole reason for the dispensary’s early success. Its commitment to pricing may also be a factor in attracting customers.

“Some providers have chosen that if they’re in an outlying community, they’ll have a different product mix and ... pricing scheme. Some actually charge more because they have less competition,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve actually elected to have uniform pricing and uniform products across all our locations.”

Patients are ecstatic that they now have a local facility that they’re proud of in which to secure their medicine, he says. Since opening, Rodriguez has received testimonials from tearful patients relieved that they don’t have to drive 60 to 100 miles to find a dispensary and that they now have quality options close to home.

“They’re are dropping off cookies, homemade fudge and paintings. It’s nothing but just an outpour of support for our new location,” he says. In just a few months, the location is starting to reflect the community hub it once was—exactly what Rodriguez dreamed of.

Scott Guthrie is senior editor of Cannabis Dispensary.