Horry County officials not interested in running public shooting range

Horry County leaders don’t mind building a shooting range.

They just don’t want to manage one.

That was the message from most council members this week during a workshop discussion about the need for an outdoor shooting range in the county.

“I’m 100 percent in favor of having a range in Horry County or maybe even two,” said councilman Bob Grabowski. “I’m not so sure about the county getting into the gun range business as far as management and running it.”

For several years, state lawmakers have talked about the demand for an outdoor public gun range in Horry. The county has private indoor ranges and a small outdoor one that’s run by a nonprofit group. Other than those, the offerings are sparse.

Two years ago, local leaders made plans to build a range at the Cool Springs Business Park near Aynor. The idea was that gun makers PTR Industries and Ithaca Gun Co. would establish manufacturing facilities at the park, and the range would give them a place to test their firearms. Gun enthusiasts also championed the project because it would offer them another option for target practice.

But since that proposal was announced, Ithaca has scrapped its Horry County plans and PTR has struggled to regain its financial footing. Last year, county staff determined that the best location for a range would be a vast tract off S.C. 90.

What makes the range concept appealing to county officials is the more than $1 million in grant money available for building the facility, which is projected to cost about $1.4 million.

“It is a good opportunity if you want to get into that business,” said Brent Taylor, the county’s parks and recreation director. “Because outside funding sources would take care of most of the cost.”

Taylor pointed out that there’s strong demand for a range. In a state with nearly 365,000 target shooters and numerous hunters, gun ranges have an obvious cultural appeal. County officials are surveying residents about the area’s recreation needs and nearly a quarter of the respondents have said a shooting range ranks among the most desirable public facilities.

A range could offer gun education courses, serve as a training facility for local law enforcement and host shooting competitions.

But Taylor admitted the project isn’t all rosy.

“Obviously, there are some concerns,” he said. “It takes up a lot of size for this type of range and that type of size also is tied up for 20 years in this type of grant program. So if we commit to it, we’re basically committing to it for 20 years.”

Council members are worried about the liability tied to such a facility as well as its impact on surrounding residents.

County staff have said the best site for a range would be somewhere on the nearly 1,200 acres off S.C. 90 that are owned by the local Solid Waste Authority. A range would require 10 to 20 ares, depending on its offerings.

A group of residents who live in that community showed up to the council’s Tuesday workshop to explain their fears.

Joseph Iafrate, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD, said he often hears shooting near the Hillsborough development where he lives.

“The hair on my neck goes up every time I hear the shooting around my neighborhood,” he said. “If there’s going to be more noise with a gun range out back, it’s going to make it pretty unpleasant for a lot of people. ... I probably would have to sell my house.”

Councilman Jody Prince, who represents the area in question, said that community already deals with a landfill on S.C. 90 and trash trucks that frequently rumble up and down the highway. Adding a gun range there, he said, would not go over well.

“The not-in-my-backyard issue is going to explode,” he said.

Should the council agree to build a range, Prince said he doesn’t want it in his district.

“I love that sound,” he said of gunfire. “But I don’t know that I’d want to live with it pounding on me all day.”

Along with the NIMBY factor, council members seemed concerned about the cost of staffing and managing a range as well as the insurance coverage required for such a facility.

Taylor estimated the range would cost about $86,500 annually to staff and operate. He proposed paying for that primarily with revenues from memberships and $6 per person shooter fees. His projections indicate the county would collect $54,000 in shooter fees each year and an additional $15,000 in membership sales. Events, supply sales and concessions commissions would balance the budget.

Most council members, however, fear the range may not generate enough cash to cover its costs. That would force staff to trim other recreation services.

“If there’s a shortfall, the money’s got to come from somewhere,” said council chairman Mark Lazarus. “That’s going to be one less kids basketball [league] or something that’s not going to happen in our rec department if we’ve got to find the funds.”

The chairman suggested the council use the grant money to build the range and then find a nonprofit to run it.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “We need it. There’s a big call for it obviously, but we need to figure out a way that the liability and the expense is really not on our backs.”

Whether a nonprofit group can lease the site or run the range is unclear.

Jeff Boyer with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said he doesn’t know if that arrangement would work.

“We would consider that,” he said. “We would have to discuss that with our federal partners, depending on the nonprofit. If they have the capabilities of operating a range or are knowledgable of what they’re doing, I don’t think we’d have a problem with that, but we would want the federal input on that before we moved forward.”

Some councilmen said they won’t support even building a range.

Councilman Paul Prince said private sector businesses should handle that demand.

“If it’s needed that bad, it’s wanted that bad, if it makes money, they can come in and do it their self,” he said.

The range did find some support on the dais.

Councilman Al Allen urged his peers to pursue the project, which he said would be embraced in a community that treasures guns.

“It’s ingrained in our heritage,” he said. “We have never had a public outdoor range here and it’s something that we really need to seriously consider.”

Allen said his district, which includes the Aynor area, would support the range.

“We’ll be glad to take it in the western part of the county,” he said. “My citizens would love to have it out there.”

Military veteran Chris Davis also asked the council not to give up on the proposal. Davis runs a Facebook page that promotes building an Horry range and said it would be an important training facility for the county’s public safety workers.

“You’re not in the shooting business,” he told council members. “Unfortunately, none of you can break the stigma of saying you are in the shooting business. What I’m proposing is that you are in the training business. You’re training your first responders.”

Other than the S.C. 90 property, county officials have identified four other potential range sites, including two in the Aynor area.

County leaders asked staff to prepare a proposal for the council’s Public Safety Committee to review. They insisted that the staff look for ways to turn the management of the facility over to an outside group.

Money remains the sticking point.

“Like everyone else, I have no problem with a range,” councilman Marion Foxworth said. “I do have a problem with ongoing costs and what its impact would be.”