Millions spent on downstate gun range that sits mostly empty

Millions spent on massive downstate gun range that sits empty

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Chances are you've never heard of the World Shooting and Recreational Complex; which is too bad, because you almost certainly paid for it. In fact, Illinois taxpayers kicked in tens of millions of dollars for the downstate tourist attraction. The problem is, it isn't attracting a lot of tourists and it continues to lose money.

A promotional video produced by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources shows crowds of people shooting, fishing, dining and camping at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta, about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis.

"A visit to the World Shooting and Recreational Complex has everything the outdoor and shooting enthusiast could ever wish for," a voice narrating the video touts.

But, when FOX 32 visited the complex on Wednesday and Thursday last week, we found a $50 million ghost town with hundreds of acres of empty parking, three and a half miles of empty trapshooting ranges, and 34,000 square foot events center and restaurant--empty and locked.

In the massive campground which boasts space for a thousand RV's, we found less than a half dozen, including one camper appropriately named "solitude."

John and Kathleen Woods were visiting from Louisiana.

"We came in Sunday night," Kathleen says. "We haven't seen many people."

"My first thought came to my mind was only the government can do this," John adds.

In fact the only person we found with a gun in their hands was cast in bronze. The only sounds we heard were songbirds and the buzz of lawnmowers.

The 1,600 acre complex is so big; it looks like an airport on Google earth, but it has yet to earn the state a single dime.

Illinois State Senator Dan Kotowski is among a number of lawmakers questioning the payoff on the state's $50 million investment.

Since opening in 2006, the World Shooting Complex has lost money every single year, totaling nearly $11 million in red ink.

"The state must live within its means. Fund what works. Get rid of what doesn't," Kotowski says. "Should we be in the business of making sure that we have sport shooting competitions, shooting competitions should the state government be in that business whether it makes people feel good or not? I think we should be in the business of educating our children."

Supporters argue that even though it's losing money, the complex pumps $25 million a year into the downstate economy. Much of that is through its biggest annual event, the grand American trapshooting championships, which draws thousands of shooters from across the country for ten days in august.

They say this new hotel in Sparta would never have been built without the shooting complex.

"Certainly we would love all of our facilities to operate at peak efficiency and we would look for ways to do that here as well," says Chris McCloud. "But we do think it meets the mission, we think it serves as a very valuable took for those folks in that particular region of the state."

Some believe there's another way to look at this giant empty complex. They say it's really a monument to Illinois politics. That's because the project was green lighted by former Governor Rod Blagojevich who was on hand to open the complex just months before his bid for re-election.

"This is the culture of Illinois politics," says John Tillman. "This is Governor Blagojevich, if you'll pardon me, taking a shot at getting downstate votes by essentially enticing them with something that is unique to the downstate environment, which happens to be trapshooting."

"It's a giant white elephant and we need to take a shotgun to it and put it out of its misery," Tillman continues.

Both Tillman and Senator Kotowski say they'd like to see the state explore selling the shooting complex or privatizing it, but the DNR spokesman says he's not aware of any plans to take either of those steps.

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