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 Bay 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 so-called “Five Star” gun range in the 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 like Arthur Hayhoe of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
At a city planning board meeting earlier this month, where the range was approved unanimously, public opinion appeared more mixed.
“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,” said Sgt. Michael Trill of the Tarpon Springs Police Department, who said he was speaking to the issue personally.
Putting questions of gun safety aside, what’s driving the construction of Reload and numerous other high-end shooting centers across the country is basic economics.
Gun sales exploded in late 2012 through 2013 in Florida and across the country, 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 previous year that month.
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.
A major trend has been the construction of “high-end” facilities with “amenities that resemble private clubs,” Bazinet said, including more instructional classes and special promotions to capture new customers like ladies nights.
There are 46 of these top tier shooting centers deemed worthy of getting a five-star rating by the foundation, a sign of distinction to sportsmen and enthusiasts.
Florida has five of these top-ranked ranges, more than any other state. There are two in Tampa, Shooters World and Florida Firearms Academy, which puts the city in a tie only with Las Vegas.
Shooters World on East Fletcher Avenue near Interstate 275 opened just last year and business has been booming, general manager Bruce Kitzis says.
More than 60,000 square feet, it’s among the largest gun stores in the nation and Kitzis says he’s already fulfilling his goal to bring a broader group of people into recreational shooting.
Inside, there are scores of HDTVs with sports and movies playing, a lounge with free drinks and snacks, displays of toys for kids, pursues for women carrying concealed weapons and, of course, a friendly sales staff walking the floor.
“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.”
That’s much the way Clearwater developer European Equities has pitched the new Tarpon Springs gun range. Far from creating a nuisance or a public safety hazard, they say the new complex will replace a dilapidated hotel and restaurant that’s become a haunt for vagrants and drug dealers.
Designed by industry leader Action Target, the building will consist of 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.
Spent bullets will be collected by a conveyer belt at the end of the shooting lanes, dropped into 55-gallon drums and shipped away to ensure no harmful lead remains inside or outside.
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. 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,” planning board member Anita Protos said.
That’s not likely to happen for Hayhoe, 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 it’s the absence of regulation that 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 Suncoast and across Florida, neighbors 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 intent on growing business, but some people simply don’t like the idea of bringing more people into town who may be carrying weapons.
“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,” Kay Pitchon wrote to the city.
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.