Ready, Aim, Splat!

Just the suggestion of building a city-owned paintball park will have most officials reaching for the phone to consult a law director or legal advisor. But consider this: The National Injury Information Clearinghouse of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports paintball has fewer injuries than tennis, basketball, volleyball, bowling and many other sports.

So why does the game immediately conjure up images of injuries and lawsuits?

Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the game--a simulated war zone where participants shoot each other and try to eliminate the enemy.

Having played the game before, I can attest that getting hit with a paintball hurts, and it can leave a heck of a welt, possibly even a bruise.

However, with the correct safety stipulations and management, commercial paintball courses can be one of the safest venues in town.

Consider The Expense

Palm Bay, Fla., is home to the only city-owned paintball park in the country. The 16-acre park, which opened in November 2003, was created to give local enthusiasts a safe place to play.

“About eight years ago, people were out there playing in the woods and building bunkers,” explains Joe Fazekas, the city’s Recreation Division Manager. “The police would come out and chase them away, but they would come back week after week. The players asked the city officials to make it a cooperative effort and a safe environment.”

With a start-up budget between $80,000 and $90,000, the city managed, with the help of volunteers, to keep down initial construction costs-- including labor, supplies and materials.

“It’s a much more expensive project than it looks,” says Palm Bay’s Parks and Recreation Director Steve Riser. “I would caution others to look beyond just buying a piece of property.”

Riser estimates the same project Palm Bay undertook would cost about $200,000 today. In addition to start-up equipment, other costs such as replacement netting, chronographs, referees, mowing, replacing/repairing buildings and structures, maintaining portable toilets and paying utilities like electricity and water, should be factored into the equation.

Fazekas notes that, although the park was an asset, it was taking a toll on the resources of the parks and recreation department.

“We came to the realization that we’re not experts in paintball,” he relates. “In order to get the most out of the park, we needed experts to run it.”

Officials decided to bid out the park and its contents, although it still remains a city-owned park.

Safety First

Vince Cloe’s Invincibles Paintball Inc. took over as sub-contractor of the operation at Hurricane Paintball Park on November 17, 2007.

The site houses two traditional courses--wooded and speed. Cloe has added an urban city course--a two-story compound designed to mimic modern combat.

“Keep it as simple as possible, or there’s too much to keep up with,” he advises other cities looking to get into the business. “And I would strongly suggest a field-paint-only policy and an incredible number of referees.”

A field-paint-only rule means paintballs purchased at the site are the only type permitted on the course. Paintballs purchased from other vendors or outside sources cannot be used for safety reasons--those that have been exposed to cold temperatures can freeze and cause injuries, while those exposed to extreme heat can explode inside the barrel, causing a gun to malfunction.

Regarding the number of referees, Cloe explains that the more eyes on the field, the safer the experience because children often become overly excited and may inadvertently “forget” the two cardinal rules: Never remove a mask while on the field, and make sure barrels are covered at all times when not in use.

“I demand that if someone raises their mask at any time--even just to wipe their eyes--the refs will take them down to the ground,” Cloe says.

Another important piece of equipment is the chronograph, which measures paintball velocity. Commercial paintball facilities often institute a maximum velocity to control the speed of paintballs and minimize injuries. Cloe says some paintballers try to increase the speed, which is why he mandates that all guns be chronographed after each game to a speed of 270 feet per second (fps). The “industry standard” is 300 fps.

“The safety of the operation should be the number-one priority,” Riser cautions. “The enthusiasts want to get out there, and they want to do things that aren’t safe, so it has to be monitored.”

According to national statistics from 2003, there were 0.2 injuries per 1,000 paintball participants, compared to 1.9 in touch football and 2.2 for softball.

“It’s no more dangerous than football or softball,” says Riser. “There are actually fewer injuries.”

What about the city’s legal responsibilities in owning a paintball park? Riser notes Palm Bay does not have to carry any special insurance--it is covered under the same liability umbrella as all of the other city parks. He adds that Cloe also has to carry his own insurance policy, but the city is not adversely affected by its involvement in the park.

Making The Connection

Cloe says the benefits of paintball are similar to those of most sports--respect, teamwork and self-esteem.

“Not all kids fit into the basketball, baseball and soccer mold,” he points out. “They’ll do it, but some of them want something a little more extreme.”

And officials just might find some surprising ways to utilize a paintball park.

Cloe explains that Fort Pierce--a neighboring suburb of Palm Bay--was experiencing problems with two rival youth gangs.

“The sheriff brought the gangs to the park as an intervention,” he says.

First, they were given paintball guns and allowed to have at it, battling each other for over an hour. Then the two gangs were split, with half of each group sent to the rival gang.

“By the end of the day, these guys, who would just as soon stab each other, were laughing, slapping each other on the back and protecting each other by yelling ‘he’s coming around the back,’ and working as a team.”

The fields at Hurricane Paintball Park now see more than 100 users per day, including people of all abilities. Cloe emphasizes the importance of families working together to build memories.

“I like to put Mom in the sniper tower and let her shoot,” he says. “Or I set it up for a little boy to take the castle and be the one to rescue his dad. The amount of self-esteem they get from it is just incredible.”

Cloe adds his decision to become a part of the business was fueled by his relationship with his own son, who at 16 was hard to talk to.

“I couldn’t get my own son to talk to me, but he didn’t have a problem shooting me,” he laughs. “At that moment it hit me, and I knew I had something.”

Seasonal Or Year-Round

Riser advises other city officials to consider the area they live in before determining whether the facility will operate on a seasonal or year-round basis. Palm Bay officials initially created a budget under the assumption the park would be a year-round operation. However, they soon realized their mistake--it’s too hot to play paintball in the South from May through November.

“It’s a little backwards down here,” Riser says. “It’s a seasonal operation similar to a golf course up north.”

Regardless of unexpected expenses and a shorter season than anticipated, Riser says the park is just one more amenity to offer residents.

“It’s been a successful operation for us,” he notes. “If there’s a large number of folks that will be supportive, I would build it.”