By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network
SPRINGFIELD — The group that puts on the Grand American, the national championship of American trapshooting, has begun the process of voiding its contract with the state of Illinois and possibly seeking a new home for the event, at least for the coming year.
Lynn Gipson, executive director of the Amateur Trapshooting Association, said leaving the state-owned World Shooting and Recreational Complex is not something the ATA wants to do.
“I don’t want to be concentrating on this,” he said. “I want to be concentrating on working on the Grand American for 2016 in Sparta.”
The Grand American brings about 4,600 participants and as many as 17,000 total visitors to Sparta each August, according to the ATA. The ATA says the Grand American pumps $10 million to $12 million into the local economy annually.
The event is held at the state-owned World Shooting and Recreational Complex — about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis — that is operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Although the ATA and the state have a contract through 2026, Gov. Bruce Rauner ordered the shooting facilities at the 1,600-acre complex closed effective Oct. 1, saying it was an emergency cost-savings measure necessary because of the lack of a state budget.
It is uncertainty about when the shooting facilities might reopen that’s forcing the ATA to think about an alternate site for 2016, Gipson said.
Gipson said he needs to recruit sponsors and reassure them that not only will there be a 2016 Grand American, but tell them where, and he has to get started in January.
The ATA in mid-October notified the state it needed assurances the complex would be open in July and August 2016 or the organization must begin looking elsewhere. The state has until Dec. 15 to respond.
If there’s a solid indication of progress from the state, the ATA could extend that date, Gipson added.
Rauner’s office deferred comment to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
IDNR spokesman Chris Young said the agency “has been in contact with the ATA, and we are aware they must begin this process.
“Hopefully, the closure of the WSRC to shooting events will be temporary. It is IDNR’s hope that as soon as a budget agreement is reached, the complex will reopen,” Young said in an email.
While the Sparta complex is valued in Southern Illinois, it’s not everyone’s sweetheart.
Critics say that by the state’s own numbers the complex costs about $3 million annually to run, including about $400,000 in debt service, but brings in only about $1.1 million.
Backers say that criticism neglects two points: the positive economic impact the complex has on the region and the Sparta center’s untapped potential for both greater shooting business and other outdoor tourism.
“There’s absolutely no doubt there’s a great deal of untapped potential in Sparta,” said state Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, whose district includes the complex.
“The state was about ready to embark on a new business plan for the complex,” said Gipson, who credited Rauner for seeking to hire a complex director with shooting industry experience and credentials.
Other state plans, he said, included hiring professional managers for the trapshooting, skeet and sporting clays, and pistol-rifle operations, as well as professionally marketing the complex.
Luechtefeld said Rauner has been the first governor to take a working interest when shooters expressed a desire for a more efficient, professionally run and self-sustaining complex.
“That’s something I had been unable to get through to previous administrations,” the senator said.
Losing the Grand American, Luechtefeld said, “is something we should not allow to happen.”
Luechtefeld said he’s doing all in his power, including speaking to the governor, to make sure the 2016 Grand American and those beyond stay at Sparta.
The Sparta complex is also in the district of State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, who did not return Illinois News Networks’ calls for comment.
Costello has been a supporter of the Sparta complex and the Grand American, and he launched a petition drive in an effort to keep the shooting facilities open.
In an earlier news release, Costello said the petition drive, which gathered more than 10,000 signatures, was an effort to show “that shooters and non-shooters alike from across the state and country support this complex and the $22 million annual economic impact it has on Southern Illinois.”
The shooting fields and camping areas at Sparta closed Oct. 1. The event center, restaurant, ATA Hall of Fame and lakes remain open.
In September, the Rauner administration announced it would suspend layoffs of unionized state personnel while a lawsuit between the state and several unions is being contested.
The governor has since taken some heat for following through with the closure of the Sparta shooting areas and the state’s museum system, which is also under control of the IDNR, because even though employees are reporting to work the facilities remain closed.