Much of the country was shut down in 2020, thanks to government responses to Covid-19. But Lake of the Ozarks was very publicly—even notoriously—open for business. A short-lived local shutdown of restaurants and salons expired before the busy boating season arrived at Memorial Day.
After that first big holiday weekend, pretty much everyone had heard of Lake of the Ozarks. Photos and videos depicting the Lake wide open spread virally across the country, and while some people stayed away, many found the opportunities afforded by a non-shut-down place rather appealing.
Lake of the Ozarks area businesses reaped the benefits of the national attention, many experienced a huge influx of new customers, and countless Americans journeyed to Lake of the Ozarks for the very first time.
The Grand American Shoot
That was the case for the Grand American Championships Shoot, a trap shooting competition that normally draws thousands of people and millions of dollars to Sparta, Ill. But this year, with Illinois on lockdown, event organizers made a change: The Grand American Shoot was held on Aug. 5–15 at the Missouri Trapshooters Association (MTA) range in Linn Creek. (MoTraps.com)
Former president and current second-vice-president of MTA John Farrell said organizers at the Amateur Trapshooting Association (ATA) reached out to the MTA, hoping to move the event to Linn Creek. “We had six weeks notice,” Farrell said. They worked out a deal, and scrambled to get the Grand to MTA. “It was absolutely fantastic,” Farrell said. “People came from all over the United States… the biggest shoot we have hosted in a long time.”
Tony Shockley, the most recent MTA president, said when the move was announced, “This even fulfills one of the dreams of the late W.F.J. Fienup, the founder of the Foundation in 1968, that made the MTA possible. His dream was for the Grand American Championships to be held at MTA.”
MTA is the second-largest trap shooting facility in the country, second only to the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta, where the Grand is normally held. With a mile-long trap line, 60 traps, and 329 campsites plus additional primitive camping space, MTA was the perfect place for the suddenly displaced Grand to land.
Many of the participants in the event had never been to Lake of the Ozarks before, Farrell said. “They just loved it,” he enthused. “Why? Because of the Lake of the Ozarks! The restaurants, the hotels, things to do for the families…” Farrell recalled hearing different visitors talking about their first-time experience at the Lake. One man said with amazement, “I can eat in a different restaurant every night!” Another raved about the ability to stay in a nice, lakefront condo while at the event. Another told Farrell his wife had dropped him off at the golf course and said she was going shopping, simply asking, “What time do you want me to pick you up?”
The Grand American Shoot in Linn Creek was a hit. Hundreds of golf carts cruised around the MTA’s sprawling grounds, and the 329 RV campsites were completely full. Even with the event slightly downsized—no international travelers came to the Grand this year due to Covid—its economic impact to the Lake region was substantial: an estimated 4,000 people attended across the event’s two week span, bringing 7,900 room nights and millions of dollars into the region, according to the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitor Bureau.
But Lake of the Ozarks’ gain was the small community of Sparta, Illinois’ loss.
Sparta City Manager Corey Rheinecker says the event is a pretty big deal for the community. “The restaurants have expanded hours… the hotels are usually booked solid for the week that that event is going on. Our sales taxes increase quite a bit: anywhere from $35,000–50,000,” he explained. The event there is largely staffed by local youth, and is so significant that the Sparta school district delays their school start date so students can work the Grand.
“There’s quite an investment in the area when that event comes to town,” Rheinecker said. But the Grand American Shoot is just one of many events that come through the largest trapshooting location in the state. The complex hosts shooting events for about 160 days per year. However, in 2020, the facility went almost completely unused. “There was a lot of upset people in town,” Rheinecker said. “A lot of the restaurant owners, business owners, taxpayers in general… the city had a portion of the cost of that complex—we put the water and sewer on it—so we still have … a few more years of payment to go on that. It is a concern for us that [The Grand] was moved.”
He called the severe shutdown measures in Illinois “kind of a double-punch in the stomach. We lose the Grand, and prior to that, a forced shutdown for 8 weeks.” Still, Rheinecker says, his small community is divided over whether those shutdowns were needed. “I hear all ends of the spectrum,” he said.
The Grand has been in Sparta since 2006, when the World Shooting and Recreational Complex was opened, and Rheinecker believes the Grand American Shoot will be back in Sparta next year. “Our fingers are crossed,” he said.
But could the Grand American Shoot instead return to Lake of the Ozarks? Farrell acknowledges the ATA has a contract with the state of Illinois. But, he pointed out, Illinois is not a particularly gun-friendly state. He also noted that at the Grand event this year, Governor Mike Parson, Lt. Governor Mike Kehoe, U.S. Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer, State Senator Justin Brown, and State Rep. Suzie Pollock all showed up to the Opening Ceremony. “They had never seen that before,” he said of the event's organizers.
“I want to see it come to Missouri!” Farrell said, adding a contract with ATA would allow the Linn Creek complex to undertake massive expansions. The venue sits on 780 acres, so there is plenty of room to grow. Farrell says they’re already planning to add more RV camping sites and possibly the venue’s first sporting clay trail, in 2021.
A huge, privately funded project near Lake of the Ozarks has already been a homerun for families looking to play. Ballparks National (BallparksNational.com) opened for destination baseball tournaments this fall, and Director of Operations Jeff Vernetti says they have already benefited from the region’s “open for business” status. Vernetti says the new venue drew interest from families who couldn’t find a place to play, in neighboring states.
The all-turf fields were put to use, as several tournaments came to Ballparks National right off the bat. “We’re seeing a little bit more increased interest than we thought,” he said. “What Covid seemed to do to youth sports, they either got cancelled or put on hold across most of the Midwest. And then as areas started to lighten up restrictions or allow limited youth sports to continue, it just pushed the entire schedule back…”
That meant plenty of people looking for places to play fall ball, he explained. “We’ve received interest from Arkansas, Kansas, heavily in Illinois, especially on the St. Louis side of the river. That state’s been locked down more than any of Missouri’s neighboring states.”
“If teams are frustrated with their surroundings, they certainly won’t be frustrated here if they give us a shot,” Vernetti said.
Attractions & Venues
Dan Doornink, whose family runs Lake Ozark Helicopters (LakeOzarkHelicopters.com), says they flew a remarkable number of people this summer for aerial tours of Lake of the Ozarks who had never been here before. Doornink said he piloted a sunset flight for a couple from San Francisco who had never heard of the Lake until the CNN coverage of Memorial Day weekend. They came to check it out, and absolutely loved it. The couple sent photos to friends from all over, and planned to bring another group of friends for their first visit to the Lake. “We’ve got beautiful sunsets, fresh air, places are open,” Doornink said. “People want to be here.”
Online bookings for LO Helicopters aerial tours were up by hundreds of percents this year, and Doornink says in year-over-year comparisons, every week of this summer has continued to be even better than the last.
New visitors flowed in to visit the Lake's waterpark, too. “We picked up almost 10,000 guests [the first two weeks of September],” said Darin Keim, owner of Big Surf Waterpark (BigSurfWaterpark.com). Keim says Big Surf benefitted both from a new law that prevents Missouri schools from starting earlier than 14 days before Labor Day, and from the general boom in visitors to the Lake this summer.
Alan Wohlgemut, a Lake area professional wedding photographer who runs Lighter Focus Photography (LighterFocus.com), says he booked several weddings this summer, in which the couples specifically told him they could not get married or have the wedding they wanted in their own city or state. He had to decline a few other clients, due to scheduling conflicts, who said the same thing. Another client was supposed to get married in St. Louis this summer, but moved their nuptials to the Lake of the Ozarks; he says some of his 2021 wedding clients have opted to wed at the Lake because of what they saw friends endure in their more-locked-down cities/states in 2020.
Chelsea Cisar with The Exchange Venue (TheExchangeVenue.com) in Camdenton says their business saw a significant hit in the spring and summer. As people concerned about Covid planned outdoor weddings and events, indoor event venues suffered. However, things are looking up. Cisar says she received a call this week from a couple who lives in a more-restricted county but wants to move their wedding to a less-restricted one. “I think [this] is starting to happen,” she said. “People who still want to get married, but don’t want to have restrictions.” As the weather cools and outdoor events are no longer an option, Cisar says bookings at The Exchange are increasing. Echoing many Americans’ sentiments, she added, “2021 looks like it’s going to be a great year.”