TAMPA — The last time Tampa police had ready access to a firing range was 1995, but it closed after nearby houses were peppered with stray 9mm rounds.
Now the city is building a $5.4 million practice range designed to be convenient for officers and easy on the neighbors.
The range will be built next to the city's McKay Bay garbage incinerator, with walls and angled sections of roofing to keep bullets inside, plus sound-absorbing materials to reduce the sound of gunfire.
At one point in the 4 1/2 years of planning, a sergeant involved in the project's design went to Palmetto Beach, about three-quarters of a mile away, and stood with a neighborhood leader while his colleagues fired guns at the proposed site.
The noise was more than anyone expected, Palmetto Beach Community Association president and neighborhood watch coordinator Jennifer Willman recalled Wednesday at a groundbreaking for the project.
The initial design had no walls, no roof and no noise mitigation. The original idea was to shoot into an earthen berm and put down a liner to keep lead out of the ground.
"She was like, 'I don't know about that,' so I said, 'Okay, let's tweak it,' " Sgt. Jarrett Seal said.
Officials and designers added three walls around the range, plus sections of baffle roofing and sound-absorbing material for the 25-yard range, where most of the shooting will take place. A 25-foot berm between the range and the neighborhood should further hold down noise.
The range will have 40 shooting lanes and a design similar to the range for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. All rounds will be captured and recycled through an automated containment system.
"Lead never hits the ground," Seal said.
It also will have a classroom, offices and a "shoot house" with movable walls that allow officers to simulate scenarios.
Tampa's 994 sworn officers must demonstrate proficiency with their service weapons once a year, but for a long time it has been hard for them to get in any additional practice.
Police used to train at the Tampa Pistol and Rifle Club on Old Memorial Highway, but it was closed after bullets hit houses in the nearby Countryway subdivision.
Since then, police have used the Hillsborough County sheriff's range in Lithia, but the drive is costly and takes officers off patrol.
"Because of the distance — it's an hour's drive from headquarters — it's difficult for officers to get out there," police Chief Jane Castor said.
As a result, she said, many officers have just been requalifying with their service weapons once a year but not training, which is not acceptable.
"Studies show that the more officers practice with their firearms, the less likely they are to be using them in real-life scenarios," Castor said.
The project is expected to be done in November 2015. Construction funds are coming from cash seized in felony cases.
After the changes from the initial plan, "I do feel confident," Willman said. "At first I was worried, but I now feel like they have really brought me into the process, and I'm hopeful that it's going to be a great facility overall."
"It's going to work well," Seal said. "It's not one we're going to have to worry about being shut down later."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.