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Willmar Parks and Recreation Board recommends closure of indoor gun range

The Willmar Parks and Recreation Board has recommended that the Willmar City Council permanently close the indoor gun range in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium. The main reason is the high cost of keeping the facility free of lead contamination.

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The Willmar Parks and Recreation Board are recommending the closure of the Indoor Gun Range located in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium. High cleaning costs, safety concerns and low user numbers were behind the decision. Erica Dischino file photo / West Central Tribune
Erica Dischino

WILLMAR — After months of in-depth discussion , the Willmar Parks and Recreation Board is recommending the closure of the city's indoor gun range in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium.

"It seems pretty evident that this range needs to be closed down at this point in time," said board Chairman Jim Anderson, who made the motion to recommend closure.

The motion passed unanimously on a voice vote and will now move forward to the Willmar City Council, which will make the final decision on the future of the range.

The reason for the closure all comes down to the high cost of maintaining and cleaning the facility due to lead contamination from the shot and primer used in firearms. In the past couple of years the lead standard has become stricter — 10 micrograms per square foot for a public facility that allows children under the age of 6, which includes the City Auditorium.

Chris Simon, Willmar building maintenance supervisor, said it was going to cost the city around $150,000 to clean the gun range and the main floor of the auditorium due to lead contamination, along with replacing the rubber ballistic blocks used in the range to catch the fired shot. The high cleaning cost is because the stricter standards will require even more invasive cleaning measures, such as removing the floor and ceiling tile in the range, Simon said, who has talked with several lead mitigation companies.

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"Ten parts per square foot is just undoable," Simon said, without those major efforts.

The city will have to clean the gun range and auditorium this year, whether the gun range is closed or not, to get it down to the standard level. However, if the range is closed, the city will no longer have to do the annual lead cleaning and will not have to replace the ballistic blocks every other year.

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Every year the city of Willmar must complete a deep cleaning of the indoor gun range to try and keep the lead levels within mandated standards, which have become stricter over the past few years. In addition, every other year the gray, rubber ballistics blocks that make up the walls of the range also have to be replaced. The cleaning and block replacement is estimated to cost the city $150,000 this time around. West Central Tribune file photo

Interim Willmar Public Works Director Gary Manzer also raised safety concerns for staff who have to maintain that facility throughout the year, including weekly lead tests and surface cleaning.

"It is a risk that I think is an unnecessary risk for the revenue and use. The balance is out of whack," Manzer said, comparing it to sending staff down into the sanitary sewer system. "Is this something you want your employees to engage in on a weekly basis?"

There has been some discussion about turning the indoor gun range into a lead-free facility . But over the past few board meetings, staff and even users of the facility have said it could still be years before that would be possible due to the technology and supply of lead ammunition. There are also concerns about how the city would enforce such rules.

Other options, such as allowing the public to use the indoor range at the Law Enforcement Center or completely closing off the range from the rest of the auditorium, are not possible. Manzer said the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office , which owns the Law Enforcement Center, will not open the gun range to the public. Remodeling the basement of the auditorium to close off the range would trigger Americans with Disability Act requirements, making it much too expensive.

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In a photo from 2017, Chris Simon looks into the indoor gun range's massive air filtration system in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium. The system was installed to keep airflow from the range's classrooms and the shooting area separate from the rest of the auditorium and reduce the lead contamination in the air. The system, along with other upgrades at the auditorium, cost the city more than $1 million. West Central Tribune file photo

The city has been struggling with the gun range for years, even spending more than $1 million about eight years ago to install a state-of-the-art air filtration system for the range , to try and keep the lead out of the rest of the auditorium.

"It was unfortunate that that was put in back then, when there was a big push to keep it (the range) going," said City Councilor Julie Asmus, who is the council representative on the Parks and Recreation Board.

For the Parks and Recreation Board, its decision came down to three simple reasons.

"The (usage) is not there, the expense is extremely high and we want to keep our people safe," said board member Thomas Gilbertson. "It is not our decision, but for me it is a really easy decision. I express to the council that they support the parks board."

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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