The thought of mowing lawns crossed Ryan Johnson's mind, but playing paintball with friends seemed like a better summer job.
Encouraged by his parents, Johnson, a high school freshman, opened Ground Zero in 1997 with nothing but a passion for paintball and a piece of land by the Elk River. He turned a former family camping ground off Routt County Road 44 into a 5-acre paintball field that children and adults can enjoy.
Seven years later, Johnson is an aspiring actor with a flair for business.
Johnson was introduced to paintball at age 13 on a family vacation to Arizona. After playing once, Johnson and his younger brother, Tyler, purchased paintball guns, also known as markers.
The strategy and teamwork required in playing paintball and the adrenaline rush that comes with trying to avoid being hit make the game appealing to nearly all who play, Johnson said.
"I fell in love with paintball as a freshman in high school and there wasn't anywhere to play around here that was organized," Johnson said. "I was looking into something creative to do to make money. The first year it was me and my friends, and then I started talking about making it into a business. It was small games. We'd maybe have four or five people, which was fun, but I was looking into getting more people."
The high school underclassman learned important lessons about operating a business, such as how to obtain a wholesale license, how to market the business and how to organize and manage a budget.
All are lessons that have proved to be more valuable than turning a profit, Johnson's mother, Vicky, said.
The size of the land Ground Zero sits on, its limited operating schedule and the fact that the Johnsons have lives outside of paintball dictate that it won't become too big a business.
Because Johnson's ultimate goal is to provide a healthy, safe place to go and play with friends and family, the rental prices and field usage fees are competitive with much larger fields in metropolitan areas.
"He didn't realize how much you spend to go into business," Vicky Johnson said. "To him that didn't matter. He loves paintball as much as anyone out there. The key was he was doing something he loved and was learning an enormous amount."
Over the years, Ground Zero has grown from a patch of grass with 10 bunkers to the current 5-acre field with nearly 70 bunkers flanked by a gravel road on one side and head-high grass and the Elk River on the other -- elements not available on professional 60-plus acre courses in cities.
Michael and Alec Idoni's introduction to paintball came at Ground Zero, and the two were hooked as quickly as Ryan and Tyler Johnson.
Essentially, the game's only rules are that players must leave the field when their markers are hit, and that it's common courtesy to demand a surrender instead of firing upon opponents when closer than 20 feet to them.
Other than that, Alec Idoni said, what separates the better paintball player from the beginner is an understanding of the game.
"What makes an experienced player an experienced player is knowing when to move and knowing where the other team's players are and telling your teammates where they are," Idoni said.
In short, paintball is a team game, and the team that develops and executes the best strategy is often the team that wins by either overtaking the other's fort or by eliminating the opposition with water-based paint.
"The first few times playing, it's more an experience game than a skill game," Michael Idoni said. "The more you play, the better you get. As you play more, you start to learn that you can't do everything by yourself and team work is an essential part of it."
Ground Zero offers both public and privates games. Private parties need a minimum of eight players to reserve the field.
Both public and private players have access to Ground Zero for four hours, allowing a player to get in upwards of 12 games.
The season's three remaining public dates are 2 to 6 p.m. Aug. 3, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 9 and 2 to 6 p.m. Aug. 16.
Players are allowed to bring their own guns and paintballs, but all the equipment required to play, including air and masks, is available for rent at Ground Zero.
"What's cool about the field is that it's a small atmosphere, and a lot of the same players come back," Johnson said. "It is a perfect place for a paintball field."
For more information or to reserve a time call 870-0905.
--To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208
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