Meeting attendees question Varise’s sports store, gun range plans

Brandon Varise (left foreground) speaks with two Martinez residents.
Brandon Varise (left foreground) speaks with two Martinez residents.

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Few at Brandon Varise’s informational meeting Thursday objected to how he saved 714-18 Main Street from demolition and how it now has a popular bar and crepe restaurant. But many opposed his plans for 604 Ferry St., where Varise wants to put an outdoor sports store with a gun range below.

Varise said earlier that Martinez city staff had suggested he organize a meeting to clarify his intentions for the building, and he opened by explaining how he started a global positioning system (GPS) business that prospered so he could buy downtown Martinez properties.

He also introduced two instructors, Bruce Anderson, a National Rifle Association basic pistol instructor, range safety officer, chief range safety officer, and American Bando Association instructor; and Bill Vencill, a U.S. Army infantry tactics and weapons instructor, California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certified firearms instructor and range master, an NRA certified pistol instructor, advanced pistol instructor, shotgun instructor, chief range safety officer, personal protection inside and outside the home instructor and Refuse To Be a Victim instructor as well as a California Department of Justice certified firearms safety instructor.

Varise described himself as passionate about outdoor sports, which is why he sought to put a sporting store, similar to Cabela’s or Bass Pro, in the large building, with a 10 to 12 lane gun range below.

He said he saw that store as a downtown anchor that would appeal to the many residents, of Martinez and beyond, who also are outdoor enthusiasts. His goal is to revitalize the downtown area, he said.

But most of the nearly 40 people who attended Thursday’s meeting in Martinez City Hall drew the line at the gun range, even if it were to be state of the art with lanes costing up to $120,000 each, equipped with flashing lights and scenarios that would aid law enforcement officers in weapons training and continued certification and train any firearm owner to be skilled in shooting, safety and maintenance.

Their objections were vocal, interrupting Varise or his team members when they attempted to describe their plans and answer attendees’ questions, some of which were being asked simultaneously.

One audience member, Marta Van Loan, saying she was taking a page from Vice Mayor Noralea Gipner’s playbook, took hold of a microphone and required audience members to take turns posing their questions.

“I’ve seen too many Martinez meeting get out of hand and just knew that if someone didn’t handle movement of the mic around the audience there would be absolute chaos,” Van Loan said later.

She said she borrowed Gipner’s style of moderating, letting the most people get a first chance to pose a question before others got a second chance at the microphone, and trying to prevent people from interrupting either other audience members or the panelists.

Varise said his store would appeal to hikers, climbers, those who fish, boat, kayak and hunt. While he doesn’t own a gun himself, he said he saw the value of adding a gun range to the store.

Having the range indoors means air filtration systems and backstops would allow for removal of lead before it becomes a pollutant. Cleaning up outdoor ranges has become more problematic, the team trio said.

A controlled indoor range also provides for supervision and training, they said. Having nearby instruction usually encourages prospective gun purchasers to become trained. When local firearms purchasers hear a training range is in San Leandro, they often say they won’t drive that distance – but they still make a gun purchase.

The three touted education and training as important to gun safety.

While some liked the idea of an outdoor sporting store, they promised never to set foot in Varise’s business if it is to contain a shooting range or sold firearms.

Others asked Varise to consider other types of business entirely. One described how in previous years, Martinez’s downtown had a grocery store. He urged the building owner to find a tenant of that type. Another wanted a game arcade.

A few asked whether owners of other business types had approached Varise about the building’s use. He said he’s had some inquiries, particularly for office space, but few want to use the entire building.

Several cited Martinez’s resurgence as a place for family activities, and said they found a gun range incompatible with that image.

One person pointed out there is limited parking downtown. This could force a gun range user to have to park some distance from the sports store, and would have to carry a weapon that distance.

That worried several members of the audience who didn’t want people walking downtown, especially near family events, while carrying a handgun, rifle or shotgun, even if the weapon is supposed to be unloaded. “How do you monitor that?” one person asked.

The business would have concierge service so weapons could be left at the building while customers park their cars, the audience was told. In addition, the weapons could be stored secured while the customers shopped elsewhere or patronized a downtown restaurant.

That didn’t reassure many. One asked how that would work after the business closed for the night, and others feared an influx of armed customers. “All it takes is one whackadoodle,” one woman warned.

A few suggested Varise revise his plans, either abandoning having a gun range in the store, starting the store and adding the range later or situating the business elsewhere.

Varise pointed out that retail businesses are vulnerable and need to maximize their prospects for success. He said he considered his store and range a good match for the city, which he said has a strong blue-collar population that, along with others, is interested in the outdoors.

As for opening his business away from downtown, Varise said he didn’t own buildings in those areas.

Not everyone objected to Varise’s vision. A teenager said she would be glad to have a training range close to her school, and her father described how he reared his children to understand gun safety and how to respect a weapon.

Referring to accidents that happen when children or youth happen upon a loaded weapon, he said his children had been trained and knew what to do if one is found.

Anderson pointed out that Diablo Valley College teaches about gun safety as well.

Van Loan said she wanted to hear more about lead abatement and how it’s accomplished. She said she wasn’t satisfied with the panel’s comparison of gun range fumes to refinery releases. That “isn’t the answer I was looking for – just curious as to how it’s done,” she said.

On the other hand, had it been a formal debate, Van Loan said those favoring Varise’s gun range proposal would have won.

“They were articulate about the need for firearms training, a safe place to practice, a place for PD (police department) officers to practice and train, focus on safety, etc.,” she said.

“I was particularly impressed with the young… girl in the back of the room expressing how she felt more safe with the range downtown, knowing people were trained in gun safety (and) she would have a safe place to practice.”

Van Loan also acknowledged the parking concerns, and said the planned expansion of parking at Parking Lot 4 at Ferry and Escobar streets might provide spots for gun range clients. “Then folks only have to walk across the street to the range,” she said.

Varise said that while most correspondence he had received had been supportive, he’d seen objections elsewhere. The reaction at Thursday’s meeting didn’t surprise him, he said.

“People who are against it are passionate,” he said. He said he had hoped the meeting might change some minds. “But I knew it would be a tough crowd.”

The Martinez Planning Commission may be reviewing his application in July, Varise said.

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