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Gun range in Willmar City Auditorium to close

The Willmar City Council voted Monday to close the Indoor Gun Range located in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium. Safety and the cost of lead mitigation are the main driving forces behind the move to close the facility.

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The Indoor Gun Range in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium will be closing following a vote by the Willmar City Council. West Central Tribune file photo

WILLMAR — It wasn't an easy call to make, but the Willmar City Council made the decision Monday to shutter the Indoor Gun Range , located in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium, due to concerns about lead safety and maintenance costs.

The vote was 6 to 1 at Monday's meeting to permanently close the range at the end of a 90-day notice period required by the agreement between the city and the Willmar Indoor Pistol and Rifle Club, which partners with Willmar to operate the range. The range has not yet opened for the season and the city will still have to work out exactly how the 90 days will go, Rob Baumgarn, Parks and Recreation director, told the West Central Tribune following the meeting.

The council decision comes two weeks after the Willmar Parks and Recreation Board recommended the City Council close the range.

"We have tried. It is just not working" to keep the range open, said Councilor Julie Asmus.

The main cause for the closure is the federal lead standard, and the costs to reach that standard, for buildings that allow children under the age of 6, which the auditorium does. While young children are not allowed in the range, they are allowed in other portions of the facility, where lead can be dragged in from the range.

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"There are going to be children of that age in the facility. We just don't know when they are going to be there," Baumgarn said.

The standard says lead levels must not be higher than 10 micrograms per square foot for such a facility . Based on conversations Baumgarn and Gary Manzer, Public Works interim director, have had with a lead abatement contractor, it could cost the city close to $150,000 to clean the range, basement and first floor of the auditorium and also replace the ballistic blocks that make up the range's walls. Additional visits by the contractor, if the initial cleaning doesn't reach 10 micrograms, would be another $20,000 each.

Based on past range cleanings conducted to reach the old limit of 40 micrograms per square foot, it would be extremely difficult for the city to reach the new standard. The last time the range was cleaned in 2019, the mitigation contractor had to revisit the range two times after the initial cleaning to get to the 40-microgram level.

All totaled, $49,410 was spent on the cleaning and ballistic blocks. There were 507 range users and the city collected $4,312 in revenue. In comparison, the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center last year had approximately $222,000 in expenses and $82,000 in revenue.

The deep, professional cleaning of the range and auditorium usually occurs on an annual basis, on top of weekly cleanings by trained city staff. Such services have also become more expensive because of the new standards.

"We don't make the rules," said Manzer.

While there was public comment at the meeting questioning whether the City Auditorium even falls under the definition from the United States Environmental Protection Agency of a child-occupied facility, Manzer and Baumgarn and council members commented they wanted to make sure that not only children but all community members and city staff are safe when in the auditorium.

"The responsibility lies with us to keeping that building open and safe for the community," said Councilor Audrey Nelsen.

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Councilor Andrew Plowman was the lone vote against closing the facility. While he said he appreciates the work staff have done and understands the reasoning people have to close the range, he said he had misgivings about making such a drastic decision based on a federal mandate that has been changed multiple times. He said while sometimes the changes are made for good reasons, other times he wonders if the bar is lowered so much because it is unachievable.

"It is a little bit frustrating to me when there are numbers that are deemed safe by our federal government and then our federal government changes those numbers and then it is up to cities like us all across the nation to comply," Plowman said.

There was talk that if the range were to close, that the city could play a supporting role if a private entity or group would want to construct and run an indoor range in Willmar — whether by donating or selling the old range's equipment, if permissible by state law, or helping the developer through the process to construct and operate such a facility.

"Maybe there is something the city can do, working with those individuals to create a workable solution to keep these amenities in the city if they are not going to be provided by the city," Plowman said.

Councilor Michael O'Brien, who as a conservation officer said he taught hundreds of local youth to shoot and practice firearm safety in the indoor range, believes there will be a public demand for such a facility.

"There is an interest because people do not want to see our kids untrained," O'Brien said. "Deciding what we can do as a city is imperative on how we can get this to move."

Both councilors and staff said the decision to close the range had nothing to do with being anti-gun. Instead it was about being fiscally responsible and providing safe facilities.

"We truly want what is best for the kids of this town," Manzer said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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