SHELBY Cleveland County Commissioner Johnny Hutchins knew little about firearms until he joined the Army and squeezed the trigger of an M-1 rifle in 1963.
From the first moment, he had the touch. Hutchins traveled across Europe, shooting with an Army rifle team, and he enjoyed sport shooting as a civilian. But the lack of places to practice the hobby in his home county led him to look into the possibility of a public range.
Hutchins spearheaded an effort that recently resulted in the Cleveland County Board of Commissioners and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission forming a partnership to build an outdoor public shooting range in the county.
The state-of-the-art facility the largest in North Carolina will be open to the general public, shooting sports teams, and law enforcement for practice and training. Recreational uses will include pistol, skeet and trap, rifle and archery.
The Wildlife Commission is contributing $1 million for phase one of the project. Cleveland County is providing 80 acres at the county landfill just outside Shelby. The county will also manage the range and construct a building for restrooms and concession sales.
Theres something for everybody, said Hutchins, 67, who is serving his third term on the county commission. I think itll be a tourist attraction and give law enforcement a better place to practice their tactics.
Erik Christofferson, the Wildlife Commissions engineering and lands manager, said the Cleveland County range is part of a new initiative to provide more public outdoor shooting ranges.
Public shooting ranges are common in other states, and Christofferson said theres a demand for the ranges in North Carolina.
The commission is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to reopen the Flintlock Shooting Range in the Uwharrie National Forest near Troy, about 60 miles east of Charlotte. Closed since 2010, the range will be back in operation by the end of January.
The shooting range at Camp Millstone near Hoffman, about 90 miles east of Charlotte, is a partnership between the Wildlife Commission and the N.C. State University 4-H program.
A federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition that is returned to the state is funding the majority of the ranges, along with hunting license receipts, Christofferson said.
The first phase of the Cleveland County project will include a 3-D archery range, a 200-yard rifle range, 50-yard pistol range, and two skeet and trap ranges.
Christofferson said design work should start in January, with construction expected to begin in July. The facility will open at the earliest in January 2015.
Partnerships like the one in Cleveland County and elsewhere show how local and state governments can work together and provide these types of facilities to the public, Christofferson said.
As the Cleveland County range moves forward, the indoor shooting range business around Charlotte continues to boom because of the popularity of gun ownership.
When Carolina Sporting Arms opens the citys first public indoor shooting range this fall, the number of ranges in the area will have doubled since 2010. Two more are planned for early 2014, raising the count to 10 within 30 miles of town.
The owners of The Range at Lake Norman in Cornelius, which opened in 2011, plan to open a second facility called The Range at Ballantyne in March or April.
And developer Robert Watson said his plan to open an indoor range in Denver on N.C. 16 is also on schedule for opening in March or April.
Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, said he and others in the community would like to see an outdoor shooting range built by the N.C. Wildlife Commission on land near Charlottte Douglas International Airport.
Theres a huge pent-up demand for this, he said.
But Hyatt said they dont plan to approach local government officials about the idea until the issue of who manages the airport is resolved.
Meanwhile, Cleveland County leaders are headed to Indian River, Fla., next week to tour a public outdoor shooting range started by the county and the state of Florida in 2001.
Operated as a division of Indian River County, the range has been covering expenses and making a profit for eight years, according to the ranges manager, Holden Kriss.
The 85,000 registered shooters come from wide geographic area within the state, including Cocoa Beach, Orlando and Palm Beach.
Hutchins is making the Florida trip with county manager Jeff Richardson.
We want to immerse ourselves in the guts of the operation, Richardson said.
They will look at details of public access and safety responsibilities, along with staffing and costs. In January, Richardson will present Cleveland County Commissioners with a report on the potential costs of running the range.
Richardson sees the project as a multiuse recreation opportunity for people around the region; a chance to hold gun safety classes for the public; an economic engine for the county; and an outlet for local, state and federal public safety officers to train.
Im really excited, said Richardson, who called collaboration with the state a key to making the project happen. Its broad and wide-ranging, and has a lot of opportunities.