What a change.
First Illinois becomes a state where it soon will be legal to carry a concealed firearm (in certain places).
Now a gun shop is about to open in the liberal, so-called "People's Republic of Urbana" — the Gun Armory on University Avenue — and the first indoor firearms shooting range in the area is under construction just beyond the city limits, north of Frasca Field.
I'm not a gun owner but to me the High Caliber Training Center looks like a can't-miss prospect. With a combination of exquisite timing, savvy salesmanship and having a market virtually to themselves, local businessman Marcus Harris and his partners, Tim Murray and Roger Tillman, are about to nail the bullseye.
They plan to open their firearms range, retail shop and instruction center on Triumph Drive, west of U.S. 45, in late November. That's just a month or so before Illinois' concealed carry law kicks in and state police start accepting what is expected to be a rush of applications for concealed-carry licences.
"It was kinda dumb luck. When I started this venture, it wasn't that I knew concealed carry was coming and I had to get ready. It was more I discovered shooting sports, I got interested and I started talking to people," said Harris, a former high school teacher in Villa Grove who owns a local apartment rental company and lives in rural Urbana. "A couple different groups started this project and we merged together, and we didn't know at the time that concealed carry was going to come through. And then it happened to come through at exactly the right time. It's kinda like the guy who's selling pans and donkeys and pick-axes during the gold rush."
Luck or not, he's capitalizing on it. The only other indoor ranges, even for police officers, are more than an hour away, in Macon, south of Decatur; west of Bloomington; and outside of Springfield.
He's outfitting an old warehouse with reinforced walls, shooting stalls with digitally operated targets, special ballistic shielding, a sophisticated ventilation system (to continuously clean the air of lead, unspent gunpowder and smoke), a video simulator for shooting scenarios, a security system and a shop that will sell accessories such as holsters for those who need to conceal what they carry.
Harris estimates that he and his partners will spend about $1.6 million at what is now a fairly nondescript building.
"It's not a cheap undertaking," he said. "People always ask, 'Why hasn't anybody else done this?' Because it's very, very costly. A lot of people who had the want to do it didn't have the money. And people who had the money didn't have the knowledge. We just happened to put the right people together."
And don't think Harris' plan is to attract just hunters and camo-wearing gun enthusiasts. He's thinking far beyond that.
"The female population is the biggest growing market in shooting sports. They've become a moving force. But a lot of the shops and ranges are male-oriented and women feel uncomfortable," he said. "We really want — I know it sounds crazy — a family atmosphere. We want people to be able to come in and feel comfortable."
His plan includes special days for ladies, veterans and Boy Scouts, date nights, events for Red Hat Society women, even for girls and young women. He'll rent the place for birthday and bachelor parties.
He intends to target students, especially international students at the University of Illinois.
"One of the big markets is foreign students. In a lot of countries, they're not allowed to own, shoot or otherwise. So it will be a destination and experience for them as well," said the 42-year-old Elgin native. "It's similar to why do people want to bungee jump? It's an experience."
Another plan is to let customers rent a gun and try it out at the firing range, which wouldn't require a concealed-carry permit or a firearm owner's identification card.
"We'll have a rental area so that people can come in and rent firearms and try them out," he said. "Especially if you don't own, you go in to buy a firearm and it's like no other item. With a car you get to test drive it to see if you like it. A firearm, you hold it in your hand and go, 'OK, it feels right.' But that's only one small percentage of what a firearm is. How much kick does it have? Is it too heavy for me to carry around? Our facility will allow people to rent firearms to find out if they want to conceal and carry, what's a good firearm to conceal and carry?"
Harris says he wants to emphasize safety, whether it's in training and education, at the range or with the video simulators available to civilians and tactical police officers.
"We want safe shooters. We want them to have fun and to enjoy the experience," he said.
Frerichs divorce. The divorce of state Sen. Mike Frerichs and Laura Frerichs was finalized last week in Champaign County Circuit Court.
Laura Appenzeller Frerichs is director of the research park at University of Illinois. Mike Frerichs is the state senator whose district includes Champaign, Urbana and Danville.
He also is an unannounced candidate for state treasurer. He said last week that the divorce would not affect his campaign nor his Senate service.
"Michael and Laura Frerichs have been married for more than 10 years. They have respect for each other and continue to be close, but have decided to go their separate ways through an amicable agreement," Mike Frerichs said in a prepared statement. "They ask for the media to respect their privacy during this personal decision for the sake of their 4-year-old daughter. They both care deeply about her happiness and plan to actively coparent her on continued basis. Mike and Laura will continue to live in Champaign-Urbana."
GOP picnic. All four Republican gubernatorial candidates are expected to appear next Sunday at the Champaign County Republican Party's fall festival.
Following speeches by Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington, Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, Bruce Rauner of Winnetka and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa, those voting-age adults present will be able to take part in a straw poll, with the results announced later that day.
"The informational straw poll will give us a good idea as to who primary voters in Champaign County are looking at to lead the ticket in the general election," said Champaign County Republican Chairman Habeeb Habeeb.
The event will be from noon to 3 p.m. at Frasca Field in Urbana. The speeches by the gubernatorial candidates are set for 1:30 p.m.
Tickets for the festival are $7 for adults and $3 for children. The fee includes lunch, music and inflatables for kids, cotton candy and snow cones for kids. For tickets or more information go to the party website at http://www.champaigncountyrepublicans.org/.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.