In a year that saw heated debate on numerous gun control bills in the General Assembly, the state is moving ahead on a long-anticipated deal to acquire a Sussex County shooting sports facility.
In the $477.1 million Bond Bill is a relatively modest expenditure of $750,000 for the first installment on Owens Station. The privately-owned facility just east of Greenwood is the creation of Bill Wolter, who began developing the property 30 years ago to train youths in shooting sports. "I figured that if I could create an educational center that maybe I could make a difference in some children's lives," he said.
The 104-acre facility is unique. It is managed as a conservation education center and is often used by school teachers as a venue for nature walks. The parcel contains several miles of trails and three small catch-and-release stocked fishing ponds. Parts of the property are used for the cultivation of Atlantic Coastal Panicgrass and switchgrass. The former is used for coastal restoration projects, while the latter is sold to waterfowl hunters to camouflage boats and blinds - preventing the cutting of indigenous marsh plants.
The property also contains the Delaware's only sporting clays course with approximately 60 shooting stations, a trap range and a "five stand" range. Best practices are employed to ensure lead shot from the ranges does not contaminate the soil and water, falling into focused areas to facilitate retrieval and recycling.
Owens Station is thoughtfully configured so the hiking trails and ponds can be used concurrently with the shooting ranges.
As a senior with no children to succeed him, Wolter realized about seven years ago he needed a way to transition the property in a way that would maintain and advance his vision for it. "I did not want to see this in houses," he said. "I worked too hard, for too long, to see that happen."
Rep. Dave Wilson, R-Cedar Creek Hundred, who represents and the area and is a member of the Bond Bill Committee, said the acquisition has been a long time in coming.
"It took a determined, bipartisan effort to get this done," Wilson said. "While he was a state representative, Bob Walls was one of the first to support this proposal. Sen. Bob Venables and I have also been advocating for this because we believe it's a smart investment that's going to provide real benefits for downstate residents."
Wilson added that while Owens Station would be the first state-owned public shooting facility downstate, Delaware has long operated Ommelanden Range near New Castle. "On a per capita basis, I think more people are involved in hunting and shooting in Kent and Sussex counties than they are in New Castle County," Wilson said. "This will finally give our downstate residents public access to some of the same amenities that have been available up north for years."
The first state installment of the $2.25 million purchase price is in the current capital budget. Two similar payments are expected to be included in the next two Bond Bills.
At the moment, everything is still in flux said Pat Emory, director of community services for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the agency that will be making decisions about the future of Owens Station. State officials are still hammering out a sales contract and needs to address the issue of how it will handle leases with private vendors already operating at the facility - a potential source of income for the state. The contract will also delineate what role Wolter will play in the transition process.
Looking to the horizon, Emory sees a bright future for Owens Station. "I think the potential is only limited by your mind. There's a lot of opportunity. Bill has done a tremendous job and I think we can build off of that."
Citing a demographic analysis conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Emory said nearly 1.2 million adults live within a 60-mile radius of Owens Station. Of those, there are more than 39,000 potential handgun shooters, nearly 42,000 potential shotgun target shooters, and almost 45,000 rifle shooters.
While the facility does not currently have formal rifle or pistol ranges, DNREC's long range plans could consider them as well as other additions.
"The bottom line is there is a mess of people out there and I think, through advertising, there is the possibility of enhancing this whole operation and making it into a destination where people could come down here and possibly camp," Emory said.
DNREC Deputy Secretary David Small said while there is still a lot of work yet to be done, the agency will definitely be considering another nearby state property, Newton Pond, as they fashion their plan. "We certainly want to think about these two properties together and how they can complement one another," he said.
Another piece of state-owned property, the 263-acre Owens Tract of Redden State Forest, situated just to the east of Owens Station, could also factor into the agency's thinking.
"If there are opportunities to make this more of a destination with using other properties that are close by; we certainly want to take a look at that for a long-term management plan," Small said.
DNREC will also be examining the potential to save the agency money by relocating some of its staff from leased office space to Owens Station. "Certainly the potential is ripe for that," Small said. "Exactly how that gets used has yet to be seen. We've got a number of field offices in that part of the state in Sussex County that could conceivably make use of that space."