TARPON SPRINGS — It looks more like a high-end department store or a luxury-car dealership than a traditional gun range.
Renderings of the 57,000-square-foot Reload indoor shooting range proposed for a derelict plot on U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs show a brightly lit, spacious sales floor, walls stocked to the ceiling with rifles, a cafe with high-top tables and a room with a state-of-the-art computer simulator.
With 45 shooting lanes — including seven for long-range, 100-yard target practice — the firearms center would be among the largest in the Tampa market catering to everyone from learners to seasoned professionals, even law enforcement.
Developers say it will be a destination for a growing, maturing market of gun owners looking for a friendlier, full-service spot for honing their gun-handling skills.
Reload has the potential to be the third “Five Star” gun range in the Tampa area, among a select few in the nation rated highly for top-notch facilities and customer service.
But not everyone thinks this “Old Florida” town known chiefly for its 100-year-old sponge diving industry needs the distinction as Pinellas County’s premiere locale for gun recreation.
“I was shocked to know that our beautiful Tarpon Springs will at a possible future date become a Disneyland to people with guns,” resident Rene Torres wrote to city commissioners, who will vote on final approval for the range next month.
“We risk no longer being known as the oldest community in Pinellas or even the home of the Greek Sponge Docks: We will simply be known as a Shooting Range Mecca.”
The city has received several letters from concerned residents and anti-gun activists.
At a city planning board meeting this month, at which the range was approved unanimously, public opinion appeared more mixed.
Sgt. Michael Trill of the Tarpon Springs Police Department, who said he was speaking to the issue personally, said: “It’s nice I don’t have to drive to go to an indoor range with a rifle range over 30 minutes to teach my children to handle handguns responsibly.”
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Putting questions of gun safety aside, what’s driving the construction of Reload and other high-end shooting centers across the country is basic economics.
Gun sales exploded in late 2012 through 2013 in Florida and across the nation, driven by concerns that the government would significantly restrict sales in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings in Connecticut.
The number of pre-sale background checks recorded by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement hit 114,563 in January 2013, more than double the same month the previous year.
With no major legislative changes in the pipeline, background checks have slowed in the first few months of this year, with 75,794 in February, but that’s still much higher than previous years.
The opening of bigger, more advanced shooting ranges appears to be a response to an overall upward trend in sales in the past decade, which means more people and a broader demographic are buying guns and learning to use them.
“These days, people don’t buy a handgun or rifle and let it sit at home; they seek out ranges to gain proficiency and enjoy the range of shooting sports,” said Michael Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation trade group.
Florida has five of these top-ranked ranges, more than any other state. Tampa has two — Shooters World and Florida Firearms Academy — which puts the city in a tie only with Las Vegas.
“It’s not just come in and shoot, but it’s a place where people meet. We make it comfortable for them to spend time here,” Kitzis said. “Our members consist of many more women and families than we even anticipated.”
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That’s much the way Clearwater developer European Equities has pitched the proposed Tarpon Springs gun range.
Far from creating a nuisance or a public-safety hazard, they say they want the new complex to replace a dilapidated hotel and restaurant that’s become a haunt for vagrants and drug dealers.
Designed by industry leader Action Target, the plans for the building include two layers of solid concrete separated by an insulated air gap to ensure residents in the neighboring Stonehedge mobile home park aren’t irritated by a constant tapping noise.
The developer has planned meetings with neighbors to assuage any worries about noise, lead contamination and other hazards.
Members of the planning board expect it to be a great economic development driver.
“Thank you for coming to Tarpon,” planning board member Anita Protos said. “There is some opposition from citizens on this, but I think once they realize what it is and how it really works, the fear will be gone.”
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That’s not likely to happen for Arthur Hayhoe of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a longtime crusader for more restrictive gun laws in Florida.
Hayhoe organized an informational meeting for residents last week that became heated at times.
He says many people either aren’t aware of the planned gun range or don’t know about the negative impact it could have on the community.
While Reload hasn’t requested variances to any city or state rules, Hayhoe says the absence of regulation should concern people.
A law passed in 2011 gives almost all authority for regulating gun use to the state, giving local authorities little ground for action if there’s a problem, he said.
In other parts of the Tampa area and across Florida, local residents have had little recourse when someone sets up a gun range and they find bullets sailing over their property, Hayhoe says.
“If there’s any problem, don’t call the sheriff because he won’t come,” he said.
These issues may not come up at a new, high-tech shooting range, but some people simply don’t like the idea of bringing more people into town who may be carrying weapons.
Kay Pitchon wrote to the city: “In short order, we will all have to assume that everyone is “packing” — in our restaurants, parks, stores, and schools. And as we see too often in the news, differences of opinion regarding loud music, texting, unexpected lane changes, and limited parking spaces is routinely settled by waving and shooting a gun.”
If the City Commission approves the project, the shooting range is expected to break ground by the summer and open in early 2015.
Developer David McComas says it could form a model for a chain of Reload gun ranges.
“We’ve traveled the country looking at ranges to make sure we’ve built something that’s as safe as possible, that’s going to be a lasting business model, that people can enjoy and be educated,” he said.