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A Disneyland for gun lovers

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cynthia Calvert

Frank McCrady, president and CEO of the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID), announced last week that a preliminary agreement has been made with Front Sight Firearms Training Centers to build a facility in East County. McCrady said the project will bring significant economic impact. The firing range project, which has an interesting connection to the questionable dinosaur theme park, EarthQuest, supposedly coming to East County, also brings a controversial history. Front Sight's headquarters is located in Pahrump, Nev., the same community that former EarthQuest consultants Don Holbrook and Chris Brown have contracted with to develop a theme park in that rural area. According to the Pahrump Valley Times [10-12-2011], after the EarthQuest project stalled, Holbrook entered a contract with the rural, economically depressed Nevada community to present the efficacy of building Think Tank!, a park where visitors can drive armored tanks. Holbrook prepared a report for the town saying that Think Tank! would be a place, “Where guests would be able to drive a military tank ... in a fun, safe environment.” There would also be obstacles with special effects and explosions. Holbrook added that millions more could be gleaned from tourists if Pahrump were to expand on that idea and build 'Adventure Springs,' which would include the tank/explosion range along with a movie, a lake, a visitor center, a town, a hotel with a water park, a family entertainment center, a golf range, an event space and retail and dining space. Interestingly, this is the same situation that developed with EarthQuest, which went from a small idea called Project Rex, then became the $50 million Dino-City which eventually morphed into EarthQuest, a $600 million plus, 1600-acre resort with four “lands,” a museum, rides, special effects, a water park, hotels, conference center, restaurants, retail and office developments, with Holbrook involved every step of the way. Front Sight has a controversial history in Pahrump. Matt Ward, editor of the Pahrump Valley Times, said that while the range is part of the peaceful community, it is known as a “gun nut heaven.” The owner, a former chiropractor named Ignatius Piazzo, originally touted the idea as a residential development with a total gun focus. Piazzo, according to KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, bought 550 acres in Pahrump in the late 1990s and promised to build ''the safest town in America' by building a 'Disneyland for Gun Lovers.'” KLAS-TV investigative reporter Colleen McCarty (www.8newsnow.com) said, “Thousands of people bought in with memberships ranging in price from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most were guaranteed a lifetime of weapons training and six-figure deals, called platinum memberships, and were promised a one-acre home site.” But the master-planned community never happened. Piazzo, according to McCarty and Pahrump Valley Times reporter Gina B. Good (archive.pahrumpvalleytimes.com/2005/11/18/news/frontsight.html), was eventually sued by several of those members. California attorney C. Keith Greer filed a class action lawsuit in November 2005 on behalf of several Front Sight members, alleging racketeering and fraud. Greer said Piazza de-frauded thousands for his own personal gain, Good reported. She also reported, “The action demands a jury trial under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The 26-page complaint against Front Sight centers on membership benefits and promises. At the organization's inception in 1998, memberships were sold to fund construction of shooting ranges. Free classes for life with memberships that could be willed to family members were attractive to gun owners who sought professional training. Additional benefits - like home sites - were promised for higher priced memberships.” Greer said, "Piazza took other people's money for investment capital to start his operation and then when he got it up and running, he hung them out to dry. Didn't follow through on the promises he made, didn't give them what they expected, didn't give them their money back." Eventually, by June of 2009, in response to Piazza's refusal to pay a multi-million dollar settlement, a federal judge ordered a receiver to take control of Front Sight, its facilities, its operations and its assets (www.pahrumpvalleytimes.com/2009). Seven days later, Piazza made a financial offer and regained control of his property. According to the KLAS-TV, Front Sight still owes more than $5 million of the class action settlement. Websites devoted to Front Site (www.thehighroad.org) have lengthy complaints that Piazza is a Scientologist or a former Scientologist. In fact, Piazza sued one of his former platinum members for writing in her blog that she believed him to be a member of the controversial organization (www.dianahsieh.com/frontsight/). Pahrump Valley Times editor Matt Ward says a mysterious death that occurred on the property, along with the recession, stopped the home development side of the operation. "A guy died out there, not by a gunshot, but it was some sort of accidental hanging. Then there was a big lawsuit and the home development just never happened,” he said. According to KLAS-TV, a range visitor died in 2007 in a zip line accident and a lawsuit did take four years before it was settled (www.8newsnow.com/story/15691632) Front Sight failed to meet Nevada state fire safety standards numerous times, according to KLAS-TV reporter McCarty. The reporter said, “Front Sight has failed again to outfit its classroom building with fire safety basics like sprinklers, fire pumps and water. It's no surprise despite claims construction was on target; Front Sight has again failed to meet its deadline. This is the fourth such failure in the last two years.” Controversy not withstanding, the Internet is also filled with glowing praise for Front Sight. Numerous blogs, letters, articles and news reports show there are many who vouch for the experience as exceptional, fun, beyond their expectations and that the gun range experience is excellent. Courses range from $1,000 to $2,000 and the website (www.frontsight.com) is filled with dozens of testimonials, course offerings, and options to learn or enhance individual firearms proficiency. Final arrangements with Front Sight is pending; the final site has not been chosen yet. As with EarthQuest, McCrady is assuring taxpayers that the development will not cost them a penny. EarthQuest developers received millions of dollars from EMCID; taxpayers were given assurance that parking fees at EarthQuest and intellectual property rights will make up for the EarthQuest costs estimated to be as high as $10-15 million (The Tribune has made numerous requests of EMCID for the total number of dollars spent to date on the EarthQuest project but no answers have been provided). McCrady said the incentives given to Front Sight will come from rebates of sales taxes and other revenues generated by the new business itself. “None of the incentives will come from any existing source or take away from current funding,” he said. “We’re looking at venue taxes to provide the incentive needed to bring these businesses to East County.”

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