Outdoor shooting ranges are under scrutiny, as urban sprawl continues to annex previously unincorporated rural land. To avoid forced relocation or closure from encroaching new home buyers with the “Not in My Backyard (NIMBY)” mind-set, range operations must secure the support of the community at large. Is your range perceived as a community asset worth preserving? “Value perceived is value indeed!” This is the adage by which the Naperville Sportsman’s Club has operated for more than three-quarters of a century.
Perhaps a description of our club’s history and activities will help in the guidance of your own club and/or shooting facility.
The Sportsman’s League was founded in 1937 by a group of leading Naperville businessmen who hunted and fished. For more than 10 years, local farms served as the club’s grounds, that is, until 1948, when club leaders proposed an innovative idea. As a result, the club entered into a pair of 20-year-lease agreements to develop the former garbage dump on municipal land into what would become the permanent home for the Naperville Sportsman’s Club. Today, the club continues to be a partner with both the city and its park district.
The 27-acre property boasts an outdoor trapshooting range featuring three fully lit ATA regulation trap fields and two man-made ponds for fishing, stocked with bass and bluegill. The facility’s clubhouse plays host to meetings for non-shooting community organizations. The club maintains an open membership that costs $55 a year. In accordance with the operating agreement with the park district, the club opens the range to walk-in traffic from the public. As a shooting facility in the heart of a large city, Sportsman’s Park stands in stark contrast to its surroundings. Instead of trying to stay under the radar, the club has chosen to make itself and the shooting operation an asset to the city, the community and area sportsmen and women.
The year 2012 represented a number of milestones for the Naperville Sportsman’s Club, the least of which was the celebration of the club’s 75th anniversary, commemorated by official proclamation of Naperville Sportsman’s Club Day, in Naperville, Ill.
The true highlights of 2012 were the monthly operational reports from our city’s parks department, outlining that shooting operations continued to exceed all expectations and that results would be the best the club had experienced in more than a dozen years. And 2013 proved to be even better!
Targets and years quantify the work of Naperville Sportsman’s Club’s membership, mission and planning as it continues efforts to remain an embedded community organization. The club has successfully fought to preserve a piece of the community’s rural heritage, in spite of being forced to temporarily shutter the doors to defend itself against an environmental lawsuit that threatened its very existence.
Throughout the nearly 80 years of the shooting club, it has been an involved part of the community. It is not enough to say, “We’re the ‘town gun club.’” To be part of the community, the sportsman’s club had to do more than just “talk the talk.” The club has had to “walk the walk.” That means stepping out of the shadows.
The club proudly promotes its programming to the community. Public access is the key to its success. Likewise, members participate in other community organizations. The catch phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is not applicable. It believes it cannot be out of sight: the outdoor shooting range is in the “heart” of a metropolitan city.
Naperville has come a long way since the mid-1800s, when it was on the edge of the frontier. Today, it is a large city. Urbanization has grown the sparse population in a once sleepy farming community to nearly 150,000 residents. The most recent 100,000 moved into town within the past 25 years.
Today’s urbanite is not necessarily brought up on fishing and hunting. The majority of adults focus on their children’s activities–soccer, lacrosse, Little League, youth football and other pursuits. However, if you open your doors and “shout from the rooftops” about a great form of adult and family recreation, people will come. In effect, the Napier Sportsman’s Club has done that.
Running a public operation, Napier Sportsman Club has been particularly sensitive to walk-in traffic, working to be an all-inclusive, welcoming operation. It actively promotes diversity in its membership ranks. Many women shoot there, though that gender still represents a minority of the “regulars.” In addition, many ethnic groups are now represented. Many of those people had little-to-no shooting sports exposure, let alone a shooting-sports role model. Members know how important a diverse clientele is not only to the community but also to the welfare of our club. If your range and/or club operation is not looking for ways to increase diversity, you’re missing out on many benefits, including financial opportunity.
Those new dollars are potentially abundant. Guests come from a vast multitude of professional backgrounds including, but not limited to, legal, financial, scientific and various sales industries. Success is due, in large part, to providing a friendly environment, blind to discrimination.
I am a past president of the club, and by manning the registration counter, I have a bird’s-eye view of those who come to use our facility. I recognize that a huge asset to our operation is the older shooters, who offer a wealth of good will. One in particular, “the tradesman,” hits his stride when mentoring new shooters, with whom he has no commonality except for the passion of shotgunning.
The annual “Open House” offers the community the opportunity to visit this oasis of unspoiled acreage landlocked by a sea of concrete and asphalt. Trapshooting and fly casting are promoted to families using hundreds of neon-colored flyers posted in the downtown dry cleaner, local restaurants and other supportive retailers. Every guest receives good basic instruction, along with the use of any necessary equipment.
Guests are paired with an instructor, and the club ensures that everyone, without exception, breaks some birds or learns the simple pickup or lay down of a fly line. All are welcomed, and no one pays a penny. The Open House is always scheduled to piggyback with National Hunting and Fishing Days. Throughout the year, the phone rings asking for the date of the event.
Since the 1940s, the Naperville Sportsman’s Club has been involved in multiple conservation initiatives for the betterment of the community. Members have propagated and released pheasants, held fox hunts, stocked fish in lakes and ponds and sponsored community fishing derbies.
When the club improved the property and moved tons of earth to dredge what would become the fishing ponds, it was a community celebration. When the earthen berms developed into what would become the largest rifle range in the Midwest, allowing the club to hold regional rifle matches, local newspapers began to splatter club news across their front pages.
In the 1950s a prominent Naperville family donated a former gas-station building for use as the clubhouse. The moving of that building through town, the setting of its foundation and its remodeling at club expense all made front page news.
It is said that “one cannot know where you’re going if you don’t where you came from.” For its 75th anniversary celebration, the club gathered club memorabilia from as many folks as it could and created a one-day museum of artifacts for both the community and our members.
Word of mouth seems to be the most common method for someone to find the club. However, as a member of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Naperville Sportsman’s Club is prominently listed in the Where To Shoot website and app. That promotion of the club and range are complemented by a simple, but informative brochure and its easy-to-navigate website created and updated by a club leader. The best form of recruitment and retention comes from a smile and a wave or the shake of a hand thanking someone for their business.
The club’s programming commitment extends to hosting monthly instructional classes through the city’s parks department, offering hunter education classes and hosting the annual Open House. More than a dozen members have volunteered their time and dollars to become certified shotgun instructors to ensure the quality and safety of our programs.
The club schedules seasonal leagues, and the year-round programming builds repeat customer loyalty. With rare exception, trapshooting classes are filled and wait-listed. The multiple trap leagues and single-day shoots are ever increasing in yearly participation as are the ATA registered events.
So, what originally started as a private club leasing town property has evolved into a partnership with the City of Naperville, the Naperville Park District and the Naperville Sportsman’s Club. City land is leased to the park district, and the club has a contractual operating agreement to provide the programming. It has turned out to be a great partnership that has been in place for the last two decades.
Not that those 25 years haven’t seen some “ups” and “downs.” In the early 1990s, the club and park district, like many new partnerships, had to feel their way in doing business together. Working through those issues and seeing increased participation generated unintended circumstances, including a neighbor bringing an environmental lawsuit in 1998.
For nearly three years the club could offer no shooting program, as the club was entrenched in meetings and the federal litigation process. Nevertheless, the clubhouse doors opened every week. The club hosted cookouts, and members played a lot of cards and watched a lot of ballgames. Area clubs that were friendly competitors graciously offered Naperville’s members access.
The outpouring of community support from folks who grew up in town, as well as from those who were transplanted, was overwhelming. The Illinois and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies could not remember so many folks ever commenting on an environmental permit, and the input was more than 80 percent positive.
The restarting of the club’s shooting program represented its own challenge. Having the dubious distinction of having the one and only National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit ever issued to a shooting range mandated the use of alternative (non-lead) ammunition and the throwing of bio-degradable targets. That, in turn, alienated a good segment of the club’s competition trapshooters. That loss proved to be a silver lining as it required the club to rework its business plan and become more family focused on recreational entertainment.
During the celebration of the millennium, Naperville’s newspaper included the Sportsman’s Club as one of Naperville’s iconic features. The club continues to act in the best interest of its members and the community.
For example, the club is in the process of reclaiming its old lead. Its programming is also due to receive a facelift. The city’s parks department has committed to updating the range’s electrical system and install new lighting. The grounds will be revamped to meet new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for its concrete walkways and clubhouse.
Shooting sports are hot. The Naperville Sportsman’s Club makes trapshooting fun, inviting and accessible. Its demographic mix mirrors the community. The club promotes diversity within its ranks; everyone is made to feel welcome. You, too, must make your operation an asset by being an integral part of your community. Perhaps this profile of the Naperville Sportsman’s Club can help.