Willmar Indoor Gun Range to close as planned in mid-February

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Jan. 7—WILLMAR — The last day of operation for the Indoor Gun Range at the Willmar City Auditorium will be Feb. 14, as planned. The Willmar City Council unanimously denied a request to keep the facility open through the end of March, citing safety concerns, questions about the agreement with the Willmar Indoor Pistol and Rifle Club, and liability of continuing to operate the facility knowing it is not in compliance.

"Knowing we are in violation and continuing with an open facility that is in violation after having discussions at the council table multiple times, I think that sets a bad precedent," said Councilor Andrew Plowman. "Although I would like to see the facility remain open — that is personally what I want — I don't think that is a smart idea."

The violation pertains to the lead levels in the range, caused by the ammunition used by shooters. The federal standard says lead levels must not be higher than 10 micrograms per square foot for a facility that allows children under the age of 6 to enter. While children are not allowed in the range, they are allowed in other places in the auditorium, such as the public lobby and restrooms, where lead from the range might be located.

Usually the indoor gun range goes through an annual deep cleaning to lower the lead levels. However the 10 micrograms standard has been near impossible for the city to reach, even after several cleaning attempts. The deep cleaning also hasn't taken place since 2019, due to the range being closed for most of 2020 because of the pandemic. It wasn't cleaned in 2021.

"Since 2020, we've been in violation," said City Administrator Leslie Valiant.

The council decided in November 2021 to close the range permanently, after a 90-day notice. Then in November, Gary Peterson, owner of Minnesota Gun Class, asked the city to keep the range open for six additional weeks.

Peterson wants to open a private indoor range for his business in the Willmar Industrial Park, but the city's current zoning ordinance doesn't allow for indoor gun ranges. Until that ordinance is updated, there will be no indoor range facilities for instructors such as Peterson to use through the rest of the winter.

The Willmar Parks and Recreation Board recommended the council approve the extension requested by Peterson. The council decided otherwise.

Instead, the council members requested city staff try to speed up the process to change the zoning ordinance, which could allow Peterson to open his private range sooner.

"We have smart people, and I know we have staff that is definitely capable of finding a way," Plowman said.

However, the city's process requires several meetings, approvals and public hearings before an ordinance can be amended.

"You'll probably see it at the beginning of March," said Justice Walker, city planning and development director. "That is the fastest that it will go through."

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