Column: Sarasota County officials study best practices at Polk County gun range

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Jay Stenger, Rangemaster at Tenoroc Shooting Center in Lakeland, Florida, stands among the rebuilt baffle system on the 100 yard rifle range. After closing the range in November 2014 due to safety concerns, Stenger supervised the renovation of the rifle and pistol ranges. The shooting center is set to reopen to the public on Sunday. ((Mar. 8, 2016; Herald-Tribune staff photo by Mike Lang)

Jay Stenger, Rangemaster at Tenoroc Shooting Center in Lakeland, Florida, stands among the rebuilt baffle system on the 100 yard rifle range. After closing the range in November 2014 due to safety concerns, Stenger supervised the renovation of the rifle and pistol ranges. The shooting center is set to reopen to the public on Sunday. ((Mar. 8, 2016; Herald-Tribune staff photo by Mike Lang)

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LAKELAND — When Jay Stenger took over the state-owned Tenoroc Shooting Center, which officials had recently taken back from a private contractor, he got a range complex that was overgrown with brush, partially submerged and dangerously unsafe.

A Marine Corps and law enforcement veteran, Stenger, 66, spent time in the corporate world before joining the the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — including a stint installing court-ordered wire taps for the FBI.

As rangemaster at Tenoroc, Stenger began hearing horror stories about “bullet escapement.” Bullets were leaving the FWC range. People had been struck by ricochets. Thankfully, no one was killed or seriously injured.

In November 2014, roughly a month into his new role, citing safety concerns, Stenger closed the rifle and pistol ranges.

It wasn’t a popular decision, especially as the range complex generates more than $500,000 annually for the commission.

He went to work making improvements, assisted by inmate work crews from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

New range "baffles" were recently installed at the Tenoroc Shooting Facility near Lakeland, which is operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The old baffles allowed bullets to leave the range. Several local law enforcement officials warned the previous range managers that the errant rounds could lead to a death. STAFF PHOTO / MIKE LANG

New range “baffles” were recently installed at the Tenoroc Shooting Facility near Lakeland, which is operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The old baffles allowed bullets to leave the range. Several local law enforcement officials warned the previous range managers that the errant rounds could lead to a death. STAFF PHOTO / MIKE LANG

The crews cut back the brush and hauled more than 100 tons of trash from the ranges that was burned on site.

“We didn’t have access to a state vehicle, so we used my pickup,” Stenger said.

He personally dug through four feet of silt to find clogged drainage pipes, which they blew clean with fire hoses to alleviate puddles of standing water downrange.

But it was the improvements to the range baffles that recently caught the attention of senior Sarasota County officials, who hope that Stenger’s tactics can save a lot of taxpayer dollars in Sarasota County.

The baffles at Tenoroc are a series of thick wooden walls filled with rock, positioned downrange from the shooter above and below the point of aim. The baffles frame the target area. When positioned correctly, the shooter cannot see any “blue sky,” so there’s little likelihood a round can fly over the earthen berm backstop, leave the range and pose a hazard.

While experienced shooters may find the baffles somewhat restricting or claustrophobic, Stenger points out they’re needed at the state-operated facility.

“One out of five shooters who come here have never fired a gun before,” he said.

The baffles he inherited were riddled with holes from decades of errant shots, exposing plenty of blue sky.

The inmates, under Stenger’s supervision, replaced all of the baffles and filled them with Stalite — a rock-like aggregate made from chunks of kiln-fired clay that will shred any projectiles fired into the wooden baffles.

Stenger estimates the new baffles cost taxpayers around $15,000.

The new ones are pristine, and are ready for Sunday’s reopening of the ranges.

A much higher cost

Sarasota County Parks officials have dithered with making improvement to the county-owned rifle and pistol ranges at Knight’s Trail Park for nearly two years — ever since the County Commission unanimously approved giving $500,000 to the Sarasota Trap, Skeet and Clays Club, so they could expand their sporting clay courses.

Before the private shotgun club can add a fourth sporting clay course, the county must add baffles to its rifle and pistol range. A state-sponsored safety study concluded there was a danger that a bullet fired from the rifle range could hit a sporting clay shooter.

Parks Director Carolyn Brown first estimated the baffles at Knight’s Trail would cost around around $215,000, and then the estimated increased to $541,000. During September, after the Parks Department posted an request for proposals for the work, they received one bid, a whopping $1,116,816.85 — a far cry from the mere $15,000 Stenger spent at Tenoroc.

The $1.1 million bid was a nonstarter with commissioners.

Last month, Herald-Tribune photo editor Mike Lang and I told senior county officials about Stenger’s accomplishments, and how he used inmate labor to lower the cost.

A week later, Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer and Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson visited Tenoroc to see the baffles for themselves. Both are avid shooters. They were accompanied by Brown and a county engineer.

“We learned a lot from our trip to Tenoroc,” Robinson said. “And we’re looking at adopting some of their materials and designs into our baffle system.”

Harmer described the site visit at “extremely interesting and helpful.”

“I didn’t see anything that bothered me as a shooter,” he said.

After the visit, Harmer sent an email to Brown, in which he laid out a three-step plan to get the work started.

“We talked about it earlier in the week, but I wanted to put it down so it is clear and we can discuss any questions or clarifications as you move forward with next steps,” he told her in the email. “Time is of the essence.”

In an email to County Commissioners, Harmer wrote that he told Parks officials to “revise their approach.”

“The Parks staff will be coming back with their plan and will further update the Board on next steps as soon as possible,” he wrote.

“I don’t typically get involved at that level of project management,” Harmer told me last week.

He recently sent an engineer to talk to sheriff’s officials, who promised their full cooperation.

“We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Chief Deputy Col. Kurt Hoffman, another avid shooter. “We’re waiting for the call.”

Hoffman said Sheriff’s officials determined that the range work is well within the parameters of what they can do with inmate labor and offender work crews.

“We’ve already ID’d folks in the jail with the right experience,” Hoffman said. “Hopefully, our involvement will minimize the disruption of the range being shut down.”

— If we don’t run into each other at the range, you can reach me at (941) 284-8553, by email at lee.williams@heraldtribune.com or by regular mail, 1741 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You also can follow me on social media at facebook.com/TheGunWriter or Twitter.com/ht_gunwriter or watch us on our new YouTube Channel.

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About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Column: Sarasota County officials study best practices at Polk County gun range - 2nd Amendment Right

  2. Very interesting, I was totally against Sarasota Co. spending the money on Baffles but this video has change my mind. If the Sarasota Co. Sheriff can supply inmate and offender labor it will greatly reduce the cost of the construction because a Private Contractor has to pay skilled labor wages plus workman’s compensation insurance and still try to make a profit.

    • Totally agree, Dan. If we gotta have baffles before the shotgun guys can add another course, then this is the right way to get them — the least amount of strain on taxpayers.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Pingback: Column: Sarasota County officials study best practices at Polk County gun range – pistolponies

  4. Pingback: BREAKING: Ancient Oak Gun Club gets new manager - The Gun Writer

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