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Story Last modified at 10:23 p.m. on Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Shooting range planning stages move ahead despite change in price tag
Range would give officers better area in which to practice

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan's recent decision to ask the state for less money to fund a police gun range doesn't mean the cost of the longtime city wish-list item has gone down – or up, for that matter.

"Right now we don't have a concrete cost," said APD deputy chief Steve Smith, the department's point man on the project.

In his preliminary request for capital funding, Sullivan said he wanted $17 million from the state, a figure similar to what the muni had asked for in each of the past several years. But after a closer look at that number, Sullivan decided to scale back his request to $1.5 million, which would cover only the design phase of the project.

"He said, 'let's switch gears here and really figure this out,'" said Sullivan aide Sara Gill.

Gill explained that the larger requests had been used by previous administrations as a sort-of ballpark figure, rather than a specific request for a planned project.

"It was supposed to be like a placeholder," she said.

Until an actual range design is established, nobody really knows how much the project will cost, Smith said.

"The key component is the planning and design to identify a cost," he said.

First proposed in 2004, Smith said the gun range is needed to fill a training gap in the department.

"Policing is evolving and there's an expectation that we have those kinds of capabilities to keep the public safe," he said.

Currently, APD officers do most of their training at the public Birchwood Shooting Park. But there are a number of issues surrounding the range that make it less than ideal. The indoor range is just 25 yards long, meaning it's not a good place to work with high-powered sniper rifles or shotguns. And officers have to compete with the public at the popular shooting park when it comes to scheduling.

"It's about the only game in town," he said.

Officers also occasionally use Fort Richardson, but Smith said the needs of local law enforcement don't get top priority there.

The proposed police facility would allow officers from both the APD and other law enforcement agencies to train in their own, dedicated space.

"It would get the police out of the way," he said.

The Legislature has already approved some funding for the project, allocating $100,000 to fund an initial study. As a result of that effort, it was determined in 2008 that the range should be located next to the existing park in Birchwood.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak/Mat-Su, said whether or not the range gets state funding depends somewhat on how vigorously the Sullivan administration lobbies for the project.

"It depends on what kind of a case the city makes," Stoltze said.

Stoltze said he was pleased with Sullivan's decision to step away from the larger figure until more specifics are known about the project.

"I do like his approach," Stoltze said.

Stoltze said he's unsure if legislators will feel comfortable funding such a potentially expensive facility to be used solely by law enforcement.

"It's a big chunk of change," he said.

Though some conceptual ideas have been tossed around, Smith said there has never been an actual design for the range. But he said it would likely include a range for firing long-range rifles, some classrooms and possibly space for tactical training. However, he said the request isn't out of line with what other police forces of comparable size have in other parts of the country.

"We're not asking for the Taj Mahal," he said.

Smith said he's hopeful that this year's request will find favor with the Legislature. If not, he said the need for a police range will still be there next year.

"It just takes a long time to get these things through," he said.

Contact Matt Tunseth at matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com or 694-2727.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 5, 2011.