Getting the draw on development: Planned S. Illinois shooting complex boosts economy

Monday, January 16, 2006

MARISSA, Ill. -- Around this tiny Southern Illinois town and nearby Sparta, folks at times politely quibble about who is closer to the sprawling recreational shooting complex being carved out of former mining land.

With both communities just a few miles from the place, it's pretty much a draw.

But one thing isn't in dispute: The 1,500-acre complex set to open this summer is slowly drawing development and other business interest to the struggling Randolph County area, as many had hoped.

Marissa now has its own gunsmithing shop, and plans are afoot for a bed and breakfast in town.

And in Sparta, a town of 4,800 about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis, developers plan to build an 84-room Holiday Inn just north of town along Illinois Route 4, not far from the shooting complex. There's also talk of converting a long-vacant middle school into a banquet facility and sports bar, Mayor Randy Bertetto said.

Big news for area

The development is big news for the area, which has lost hundreds of jobs in the past couple of decades as mines and a printing plant shut down.

"It's extremely exciting," Bertetto said. "I believe it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Local hopes have been high since the Amateur Trapshooting Association announced in 2004 it was relocating the 11-day Grand American championship to this area from Vandalia, Ohio, where it had staged the event from 1924 through last August.

The tournament, pulling out of Ohio partly because of expansion plans at nearby Dayton International Airport, is scheduled for August and routinely draws about 7,000 shooters and an equal number of spectators each day, pushing attendance into the tens of thousands. A 2003 University of Illinois study suggested the championship and other shooting events could pump $13 million into the area's economy.

Frank Lewis, 30, sensed opportunity in the complex. He moved to Marissa, a town of about 2,000, from Oklahoma last summer and opened a downtown gunsmithing shop in November.

The complex, to be overseen by the Department of Natural Resources as a state park, will feature 120 trapshooting fields and 1,000 camping pads, making it Illinois' largest camping area. The property includes three "lakes" of water-filled strip pits.

Much of the construction, which began early last year, is ahead of the previously scheduled July 1 completion date, said Sam Flood, DNR's interim chief.

Crews have the site's 34,000-square-foot events center -- eventual home to conference rooms, showers and some eateries -- under roof and are to finish out the interior through the winter. Five buildings with a combined 40,000 square feet for lease by corporate vendors are done, with 51 of the 55 compartments already spoken for, Flood said.

The site's 120 traphouses are built. Underground sewer, water and electric lines are in place. Most of the roads and parking areas in the complex's main area are blacktopped, with camping areas soon to get asphalt. A showerhouse is half built.

"It's really moving along pretty quickly," Flood said. "I just think it's going to be a big boon for that area."

Heavy site use forecast

Flood said the state expects the site to be used more than 250 days each year, with the events center available for everything from weddings to meetings. Flea markets are expected on the grounds, as well as a course for all-terrain vehicles and archery.

But many say the granddaddy of the site's events will be the Aug. 8 to 18 Grand American, whose long line of competitors has included trick shooter Annie Oakley in 1925 and movie and television cowboy Roy Rogers in 1959.

The Southwestern Illinois Tourism Bureau is organizing tours during the event, including trips to St. Louis' Gateway Arch and gambling at East St. Louis' Casino Queen riverboat. The group's Web site offers information on area camping and lodging sites.

In the meantime, Bertetto said Sparta has welcomed a Domino's Pizza shop, a restaurant and a new law firm, with plenty of other businesses in contact while they gauge interest in the complex.

"We think once this is a reality, once it's here, there'll be vast interest in commercial and residential development in Sparta," he said.

In Marissa, Kathy Wright -- branch manager of Marissa's Regions Bank -- said two newcomers are converting their home into a bed and breakfast. Another couple have added a leatherworks shop to their home. Churches are considering hosting dinners during the Grand American.

"There are a few other businesses in the works, but they're wanting to be low-key" for now, said Wright, a member of the town's recently revived Chamber of Commerce.

Steuart McClintock, a 58-year-old disabled coal miner who's been Marissa's mayor since 2001, is itching to see what the complex may bring.

"I'm anxious to see anything, especially around this territory -- something to get us an economic boom," he said.

On the Net:

Illinois DNR,

Amateur Trapshooting Association,

City of Sparta,

Village of Marissa, 7/8marissa

Tourism Bureau of Southwestern Illinois,

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