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Entrepreneurs plan posh 'guntry club' in Beltsville

Entrepreneurs plan posh 'guntry club' in Beltsville

Michael DeMos and David Ridgway figure what Maryland gun enthusiasts need is a classier place to shoot.

The two Maryland businessmen can picture the setup:spacious, well-lit, soundproofed and ventilated shooting ranges; a room for private target practice; a VIP lounge with flat-screen TVs, leather chairs, chessboard and pool table; a bright retail store offering weapons that sell for thousands of dollars.

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"Think about the difference between walking into a Wal-Mart versus walking into a Nordstrom," said DeMos, 51, of Hampstead, who owns marketing company Victory-360. "This is a five-star, first-class facility."

Ridgway, 53, of Laurel, who owns Mailers Computer Services, which provides data processing for direct mail companies, said it would be "typically what you would find in a country club, for the business executive who wants to bring clients in to relax."

The Maryland Firearms Training Academy, as they're calling it, would be the state's first of what's becoming known as a "guntry club." The term emerged as way to describe posh shooting ranges designed to appeal more than traditional ranges to women and families.

DeMos and Ridgway count fewer than 20 such places around the country. They said their research tells them that Maryland is ripe for a shooting range that offers more comfortable surroundings — and better air quality — than conventional indoor ranges.

They hope to begin installing the range this spring in a building now under construction in a Beltsville industrial park, about 50 miles from the next nearest similar range in Manassas, Va., which opened late last year. They hope to open by late this year or early 2016 with at least five indoor ranges and 43 shooting lanes — including a 100-yard range for long guns — and a high-tech simulator room allowing practice with moving targets without live ammunition.

But first they need to raise money, at least $7 million, which they plan to do through a private offering of equity units to qualified investors. Ridgway said he believes it would be the country's first gun range to be financed this way.

The sale opened last week through HighBank Advisors LLC, a Baltimore-based investment bank and financial adviser to small and mid-sized businesses. Dennis O'Neill, HighBank managing director, declined to comment for this article but said in a prepared statement that DeMos and Ridgway "have developed a comprehensive, well-thought-through business plan."

Depending on the offering's success, the first phase of the project also may include a sixth range — a "shoot house," a space set up like a one-story house with targets inside. DeMos and Ridgway do not plan a restaurant or bar, at least not in the first phase. A second phase also might include an air gun and archery range.

They plan to include a classroom and emphasize training civilians and people in uniform. They say police and military members — who would be given discount rates — don't always have as much access to their organization's gun ranges as they would like, and also cannot bring guests to the official range.

The head of one gun-control organization sees these clubs as another attempt — along with what he considers hype about gun ownership among women — to shore up an industry losing its following. While gun sales have grown steadily in the last few years — up nearly 11 percent a year since 2009, according to a IBIS World analysis — Josh Sugarmann points to shrinking ranks of gun owners.

"All of this takes place in the shadow of declining gun ownership," said Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center.

Gallup reported that 42 percent of households owned guns in 2014, down from a high of 51 percent in the early 1990s. Sugarmann said the more reliable number is 34 percent, down from 49 percent in the 1980s, according to the General Social Survey, conducted every two years by a center at the University of Chicago.

Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group, called Sugarmann's view "extremely biased."

"If there were not demand for these ranges. they would not be built," Bazinet said.

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The emergence of luxury ranges reflects rising consumer expectations in general and that more people are pursuing shooting as a hobby, Bazinet said. He rejects the notion that gun ownership is declining, pointing to his foundation's surveys of retail stores showing that, for the last several years, about a quarter of customers are first-time gun buyers.

DeMos and Ridgway have been enthusiastic about shooting since they were young, although Ridgway has pursued the hobby more seriously in competition. He said he once hit a 20-inch plate with a high-powered rifle from 1,000 yards away.

To make their dream a reality, the entrepreneurs decided to target investors through a private unit offering.

Investors can buy in for at least $25,000, but only if they qualify as "accredited investors" under U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules. That means showing net worth of $1 million, or $200,000 annual income for the last two years as an individual, or $300,000 for a married couple, and evidence that they will earn the same this year.

A $100,000 investor would received a free three-year basic club membership; a $250,000 investor would receive a free five-year top-tier membership with no initiation fee.

It's a high bar, but DeMos and Ridgway are confident. They say their research on the market and the responses they've received show there are enough willing investors and demand for the club.

With the help of Acxiom demographic statistics and a profile of likely range customers drafted by the shooting sports foundation, Ridgway said he checked the number of people with an interest in guns within a 45-minute drive of Beltsville living in households earning $75,000 or more.

The number was 227,000. That's about six times the figure for an upscale range in Oklahoma City, which generated nearly $26 million in revenue in 2013, Ridgway said.

There are no reliable figures on the number of gun owners or registered guns in Maryland. The Maryland State Police tracks annual applications for buying guns, but not a total figure on how many guns are owned or the number of gun owners.

It's also not clear how many target ranges there are in Maryland. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources maintains a list of 54 gun ranges in 19 counties, but that only includes places that have volunteered to have their information listed. The state does not have specific regulations on gun ranges.

John Josselyn, the legislative vice president for Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore — an organization of 29 clubs — said he imagines there is a healthy demand for such a new range.

"I think there would be, driven largely by the fact of its proximity to Washington, where people can finally own firearms and don't have a place to shoot," said Josselyn, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 striking down a District of Columbia law that had restricted residents from owning handguns.

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DeMos and Ridgway said they considered that opinion in their planning for the project.

They said the club would offer an array of memberships and allow nonmembers limited access to ranges, after a safety briefing. They have not worked out all the details, but they figure on three or four tiers between the lowest- and highest-priced membership.

The $35 monthly basic membership would allow access to the pistol range in one-hour sessions that would be limited only if there's a wait for space. That's within the range charged by conventional ranges, Ridgway said. The top Executive Club membership would be $5,000 a year, plus a $10,000 initiation fee.

The top membership would include exclusive access to the lounge and a private pistol range, free firearm storage and unlimited access to all other ranges in one-hour increments, DeMos said. Basic members would have to pay hourly fees for all ranges other than the pistol range.

Both men said safety is a top priority — both in gun handling and potential environmental risks. They say they plan to install the best available systems for safely disposing of lead bullets and clearing smoke.

Sugarmann expressed skepticism, emphasizing that gun ranges are "by definition not safe places," and a gun in the home raises the risk of injury or death.

The two entrepreneurs said that while guns rights are important, they must be coupled with responsible handling and storage. They say their club will teach that, and provide a place for the practice they consider an essential part of gun ownership.

"If you're not willing to take those steps, you shouldn't own a firearm," Ridgway said.

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