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Published: Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Page: 1D

Even an unscheduled, unadvertised opening couldn't keep Kanawha Valley hunters and anglers away from the area's newest outdoors store.

"All we did was put up a 'We're open' sign," said Scott Sawyers, operations manager of the Gander Mountain outlet at Southridge Centre. "When we opened the doors [Sunday], we had 25 to 50 customers waiting in the parking lot. Before we knew it, we had between 150 and 200 people come through the doors. We were tickled to death."

Executives from the Minnesota-based corporation had figured they could convert West Virginians' love of the outdoors into profits for the company. That's why they renovated the old Lowe's building at Southridge and began stocking it with everything from mealworms to all-terrain vehicles.

"This market has phenomenal potential," said General Manager Cory Lickiss, who had previously managed Gander Mountain stores in Minnesota. "The enthusiasm for hunting is amazing, even compared to Minnesota and Wisconsin. I've never seen such a volume of interest."

Corporate executives still plan to hold the Charleston store's grand opening Sept. 22-24, but decided to open the 75,000-square-foot facility to shoppers last weekend "because we were more ready than we thought we were going to be."

"No advertising, no prior notice," said Lickiss, shaking his head and smiling as he watched a steady line of customers move through the checkout aisles Monday afternoon. "We just put up a sign and opened the doors."

Hunting- and fishing-related items dominate the store's retail space. The gun display alone holds an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 firearms. An on-site certified gunsmith, with a fully equipped machine shop, handles modifications and repairs. The store's archery shop is staffed with bow technicians year-round. Nearby displays are packed with everything from reloading supplies to tree stands to Global Positioning System devices.

"But where we plan to set ourselves apart from other stores is in our service," said Sawyers. "We're not only going to sell ATVs, we're also going to operate a fully equipped ATV service center. We're not only going to sell fishing rods, we're also going to operate a bait shop. We're not only going to sell guns, we're also going take trades and service the guns we sell."

Most departments will be staffed by people familiar with the local outdoors scene. Sawyers thinks their knowledge and enthusiasm will prove infectious to the store's customers.

"The people we've hired have a real passion for the outdoors. You can teach people cashier skills and people skills, but you can't teach passion," he said.

The Gander Mountain facility is the second outdoors superstore to open an outlet in West Virginia. Last fall, Nebraska-based Cabela's opened a giant retail store and distribution center next to Interstate 70 just outside of Wheeling. The Charleston store is Gander Mountain's 105th, and West Virginia is the 22nd state to which the company has spread.

Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, called the store's opening "a great opportunity for West Virginia sportsmen."

"Now they have another outdoor superstore to go to," he said. "All our sporting-goods stores tend to do well, and Gander Mountain's opening brings more diversity to the market."

Taylor said West Virginia also has the potential to benefit Gander Mountain.

"I'm sure they wouldn't have come here if they weren't planning to do well," he said. "Before they came, they asked us to provide information about the impact hunting and fishing have on the local economy. We were quick to point out that hunting, fishing and wildlife watching are a $1 billion-a-year industry in the state. I think that got their attention."

Store hours for the new Gander Mountain outlet are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays.

To contact staff writer John McCoy, use e-mail or call 348-1231.

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