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.
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.”
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