Dozens of customers waited for Gander Mountain’s “soft” opening Tuesday morning. The store plans a more formal grand opening with prizes and hoopla later this month.

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

Gander Mountain quietly opened the doors to its new 52,000-square-foot outdoors store Tuesday, and reviews from those who entered generally were positive, with shoppers saying they appreciate having another option for sporting goods and marveling at the number of guns and T-shirts available.

More than 50 people lined up for the “soft” opening at 9 a.m. at South Valley Mills Drive and Bagby Avenue. They eagerly entered the establishment after a greeting by management and then scattered to every corner of the place, located where the old University High School was demolished.

“I love Gander Mountain, and I’m tired of having to drive to the one in College Station,” said Bill Bailey, 43, who was shopping with his wife, Nikki, 31.

The store carries 2,000 new and used firearms and has access to 5,000 more. It also carries camping and fishing supplies and items ranging from duck calls to meat grinders.

During his browsing, Bill Bailey said, “We buy everything from sunglasses to socks.”

Dallas-based Leon Capital Group chose the chain to anchor its 18-acre development, which will include a new hotel and a Starbucks, Potbelly Sandwich Works and Bubba’s 33, a chain that advertises pizza, burgers and beer and “more TVs than chairs,” according to its website.

Grand-opening festivities for the Waco store are scheduled for Oct. 17-19 and will feature discounts, giveaways and special guests.

District manager Ron Retkowski said the early start serves as a warmup for the store’s 120 employees and gives customers a sneak peek before the hoopla begins.

Late Tuesday afternoon, he said traffic had been steady throughout the day, as people learned of the opening.

“We would notice people getting on their phones and telling others to come on out,” he said.

Several shoppers commented on Gander Mountain’s extensive selection of T-shirts, which were hanging on racks at strategic locations throughout the store. Some were brightly colored, while others were covered with camouflage. Apparel of every description is plentiful, and a shoe department dominates one corner.

“We like their prices; they’re a little better than Cabela’s,” said Robert Orvis, 38, who visited the store with his wife, Jeri, 37, and their three sons, ages 1, 5 and 8.

They recently moved to Waco from Port St. Lucie, Fla., where they grew to love the shopping experience at Gander Mountain.

Surveying the store’s interior, Tom Coppage, 62, said: “This is very nice. I like the openness of the store. You can see everything they have.”

Coppage, a Coast Guard veteran who had traveled the world before retiring in Central Texas, added, “I think this is going to be a great addition to Waco.”

A year ago, a 42,000- square-foot Cabela’s Outpost store created excitement by opening in Central Texas Marketplace at West Loop 340 and Interstate 35.

“This gives us more of a choice,” said Michael Tabor, 30.

He added, “The gun department is larger than Cabela’s, which is kind of surprising.”

The local Cabela’s store referred comment to the company’s marketing department, which did not return calls Tuesday afternoon.

Bubba Garber, 58, said he had never been in a Gander Mountain store before, so he made a “pit stop” there on his trip to Waco from Mexia.

“I’m already spending money,” he said, pointing to a box of Remington 9mm ammunition for which he was paying about $30.

Joanne Jackson, 44, of Woodway, took a field trip from home school and treated her 10-year-old son, Jacob, to a morning at the new store.

“I really like the fishing department,” said Jacob, a Cub Scout. “I don’t get to fish very often, but when I do, I really enjoy it.”

“I’m just checking it out,” said Eddie Walker, 63, who recently moved to Waco from Amarillo.

Gander Mountain appears to have more clothing than Cabela’s, “but I wouldn’t throw either one away,” Walker said.

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