TARPON SPRINGS — A huge indoor gun range that's planned for a blighted spot alongside U.S. 19 won approval late Tuesday night from Tarpon Springs commissioners who heard passionate arguments for and against it.
Developers intend to start construction this summer on the nearly 60,000-square-foot Reload Gun Range, which will be at 40050 U.S. 19, on the west side of the highway north of Klosterman Road. The 45-lane range, which could open early next year, is to include a cafe, gunsmith service, classroom space, a firearms store and training areas for law enforcement.
It will be one of the biggest gun ranges in the Southeast. Its backers are pitching it as a regional attraction that could draw customers from up to an hour away, from throughout Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
Meanwhile, its opponents fear that the range will bring noise, pollution and the potential for violence to Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon's elected leaders voted unanimously in favor of the range on the grounds that it will boost tourism, create jobs, generate tax revenue and remove a long-standing eyesore. The business will replace a long-abandoned, dilapidated Days Inn motel and an IHOP restaurant.
Commissioners did require the developer to abandon plans to display a military tank in front of the building.
On a different controversial subject, commissioners also hit the brakes on a long-planned $1.3 million project to beautify the Sponge Docks tourist district, due to fears that a planned boardwalk would become a navigational hazard on the narrow Anclote River.
Like the Sponge Docks project, the Reload Gun Range has sharply divided community opinion in this town of some 23,000 people. A few weeks ago, a town hall meeting about the range erupted into a shouting match. Officials have been inundated with emails opposing or supporting it.
At City Hall on Tuesday night, they heard in person from a sizable crowd of people who sat through three hours of unrelated city business to get a chance to voice their views.
Opponents believe the addition of a large gun range contradicts Tarpon's culture and character. Some called for commissioners to postpone their vote or schedule a voter referendum instead.
"It is our belief that it is a significant mistake to make Tarpon Springs a prime destination for thousands of gun owners," said resident Ellen Wolf-Muhleck.
Commissioner Jeff Larsen tried to postpone the vote, but none of the other commissioners agreed.
Reload has the backing of Tarpon's business community. The Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Tarpon Springs Merchants Association both have high hopes that the gun range will help revitalize the city's U.S. 19 district.
"While the U.S. 19 corridor isn't exactly a thing of beauty, having this eyesore replaced by a new facility will be wonderful," chamber president Sue Thomas wrote to commissioners.
European Equities, a Clearwater development firm that will build the range, says a high-tech ventilation system will filter gun smoke residue from the air, concrete walls will provide soundproofing and safety, and machinery will automatically collect bullet fragments.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.