Capital Punishment

At Trail Glades Gun Range, you can't buy food, there's only a limited selection of ammunition, and not all the lights work. The few wooden buildings that inhabit the flat, grassy fields could use some sprucing up. To save money, Dade officials have cut back on the county-owned facility's days and hours of operation. But long-time patrons love the place anyway. "I've been going there since I was thirteen," says Mariano Macias, president of a local gun club. "That range was fantastic many years ago. If you compare facilities and layout, it was one of the most elegant and magnificent shooting facilities in the nation."

Macias and his fellow Trail Glades regulars are riled. During the past few months, the normally peaceful site has seen its most spirited target practices in years. Not on the pistol range, though; these reports and ricochets are coming from the Trail Glades clubhouse, where several dozen concerned citizens have been gathering to discuss the range's future.

After years of lackadaisical and incompetent management that resulted in weak attendance and a general state of disrepair, Trail Glades was simply deleted from the Dade County Park and Recreation Department proposed 1997-98 budget, unveiled this past spring. Pending the approval of Metro commissioners, in October Dade's only public shooting range will cease to exist -- the only such facility in what is almost certainly one of the most heavily armed counties in the nation. (Official statistics are maintained only for concealed weapons, but local gun enthusiasts estimate that up to a million Dade citizens own 1.5 million firearms.)

The 20-acre range sits on 675 acres of otherwise secluded swampland that was deeded to the county in the Fifties by the Everglades Drainage District. If the closure goes through, the 3300 visitors who turn up each month for rifle and pistol target practice, trap and skeet shooting, and state-mandated hunter-safety classes will be left with two unattractive options: Drive up to Broward or practice (illegally) in someone's pasture.

Dade bean counters feel there's no other solution. According to the county's accountants, the range ran more than $234,000 in the red last fiscal year and was predicted to lose $150,000 this year. In addition, park officials estimate they'd need $220,000 for necessary structural improvements, not to mention more than $600,000 to clean up lead deposits that have accumulated over the years from spent bullets. The county once leased the range to a private concern to operate, with unimpressive results. And in 1996 not a single company responded to a request for bids to assume the operation of Trail Glades and the environmental cleanup. With no white knight in sight, it seemed logical to pull the plug. "We don't want to close the range," says parks spokeswoman Beatriz Portela. "Unfortunately the present budgetary constraints and the environmental concerns preclude continuing operation."

Trail Glades regulars were shocked when they heard the news. For one thing, they thought conditions and attendance had begun to improve after a new rangemaster was hired a year ago. And common sense told them that with just a little bit of good management, a Dade range -- with its vast base of customers -- ought to be able to make a go of it.

"You might say all hell broke loose and we started to really organize," says James F. Colson, a retired schoolteacher and former Navy medic who jokes that he put himself through school in Miami working as "a tail gunner for a Holsum bread truck."

Colson and others had recently founded the Trail Glades Coordinating Council, an association of sixteen local gun clubs (Colson is president), and they asked to review the range's books. According to Mariano Macias, the council's vice president, those accounts reflect a financial picture that is considerably less dire than the county's version: Range revenues for the first six months of the fiscal year were up 25 percent over the same period last year, he says, and as of May the facility was operating $22,000 below its expense budget and would close out the year about $107,000 below that budget. That didn't look like the $150,000 loss that was projected. (Parks spokeswoman Portela says those figures are wrong and probably don't include repair expenses, which aren't included in the Trail Glades range budget. Parks department figures do show a 12.7 percent increase in Trail Glades revenue as of May, according to Portela, but also a 12 percent increase in expenditures.)

Committee members also recall that after Hurricane Andrew, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had earmarked money to repair the range lights, which still aren't fixed. One member prevailed upon his son, an attorney, to pitch in and research county records to document how allocations for Trail Glades had been spent, or not spent.

Hundreds of members of various gun clubs put in calls to county commissioners. Macias wrote a three-page letter to Javier Souto, chairman of the commission's parks committee, challenging the county's financial figures and pointing out some possible consequences of closing the only public range in Dade -- such as shooters trespassing on private property, and stray bullets injuring innocent bystanders and costing thousands of dollars in emergency transportation and medical treatment. "I am sure that all of the citizens of Dade County will be extremely alarmed by this possible scenario," Macias wrote. "We are extremely concerned about the parks department recommendation and appeal to you respectfully to reverse their recommendation."

Souto and fellow commissioner Miriam Alonso prevailed upon parks director Guillermo Cutie and County Manager Armando Vidal to reconsider. At a meeting in Souto's office in late May, Cutie appointed a task force of gun club and parks department representatives to devise a plan to save the range. Since then the task force, which has been meeting weekly, has requested that the county conduct an audit of the range's revenues and deposits. The results are expected later this week. Task force members have also been consulting with their respective gun clubs about the most obvious change they'd have to make in order to keep the range open -- raising fees -- and they're pursuing other possible moneymaking avenues that hadn't been considered before, such as corporate sponsorships and advertising. Selling food, more ammo, and accessories on-site might raise revenue as well, as would a firearm rental concession. With the right business practices, task force members are certain, Trail Glades could join other public and private ranges across the nation that operate in the black.

"Profitability is a function of management," asserts Richard Patterson, director of facility development for the nonprofit National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Connecticut. "It's the same in any industry. There's tremendous potential in the shooting range industry."

Of course, there's still that $600,000 lead mess. But after five years of testing by the environmental engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy -- at a cost to the county of tens of thousands of dollars -- the degree of contamination remains unclear. Dade's Department of Environment Resources Management (DERM), which ordered the assessments, has not come to any decision about what ought to be done. According to Doug Yoder of DERM, neither surface nor ground water appears to be contaminated, and while the soil, not surprisingly, shows high levels of lead, it might not pose enough of a hazard to animals or humans to warrant immediate cleanup.

"The lead is not an issue," says the coordinating council's James Colson, who is also a member of the task force. "Mr. Cutie said the lead is not so important. Once we break even or make a profit, then we'll look into the lead."

If it gets to that point, they may like what they see. New lead-recycling technologies, although expensive to install, usually allow ranges to recoup costs. And if a range is well-run it can actually make money by selling the recovered lead.


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