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Business finds niche among aspiring divers

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 | 11:20 p.m. CDT; updated 11:37 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 12, 2008
After five years in Oregon, Kevin Kivlahan returned to Columbia Scuba Inc. "We're all kind of like family here," he said.

In the Midwest, beaches are few and far between- but that didn't stop Gordon Messinger, owner and manager of Columbia Scuba Inc. on 1727 Paris Road, from pursuing his passion and setting up shop.

In 1998, Messinger opened what was then called BooneSlick Diving, a company that offered scuba gear, gear rental and inspection, diving classes and diving trip packages. Little has changed since that debut.

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Messinger has been involved in diving since 1963.

"The military got me into diving," Messinger said.

During the Vietnam War, Messinger served on the Underwater Demolition Team, which was the predecessor to what is currently known as the United States Navy SEALs.

After serving in the war and doing some commercial diving work in St. Louis, Messinger decided to start his business in Columbia. He said he chose Columbia because Missouri is in the Midwest.

"It is the very heartland of the United States, and as such we see traffic from all sides of America," Messinger said.

He also added that because of the three colleges here, Columbia is what he calls "renewable" through students coming in and out, which makes it easier to survive an economic squeeze.

Darwin Rice, the president of the National Academy of Scuba Educators, said while the economy has caused the demand for scuba training to decline, it hasn't affected the numbers still taking training lessons.

"When the economy is off a little and traveling drops off, scuba training drops off."

However, Rice isn't concerned with scuba training completely dropping off, because he said people's interest in scuba is still there.

"When given the opportunity to take scuba lessons, people generally say yes, because they see it expressed on TV and see what they are able to see and experience," Rice said.

While scuba shops catch the interest of many people, after the Sept. 11 attacks it gained more attention from the government. Messinger said the FBI came to Scuba Inc., requesting a list of customers because the bureau believed terrorists were planning their next attack on a America by sea. He said the FBI questions included who they were training, what certain customers were buying and why certain customers were buying certain kinds of gear. However, because the FBI had no warrant, Messinger refused to give up his customers' names.

Kevin Kivlahan, now a veteran employee and a Diver Alert Network instructor for the shop, received his diving license certification from Scuba Inc., when he was 12.

"We're all kind of like family here," Kivlahan said. "Gordon has been a mentor to me."

After several years of working at Scuba Inc., Kivlahan took a job in Oregon for five years but came back to work for Messinger.

"I was tired of the snow," Kivlahan said. "I missed the shop."

Kivlahan said Messinger and the other employees are all certified diver professionals and very involved with their clientele as far as helping with diving and going on the diving trips. They hold a minimum of one class a month. In each class, they admit no more than 12 people, and Messinger said it is always full. The open water class normally costs $269.99, but if you have previously purchased your scuba equipment from Scuba Inc., there is a $50 discount.

The open water dives are held at the Stephens College pool or are based at one of three quarries located south of Jefferson City. Kivlahan said they get students from places like Arkansas, Texas, Oregon and Florida. He said their clients are usually students from MU or they hear about Scuba Inc. from word of mouth.

The Scuba Inc. instructors also do commercial work wherever they are needed. Kivlahan said commercial diving jobs vary.

"Anything from putting on pool covers to water tower inspection," Kivlahan said. "One time we had to recover this college student's wallet from the river because it had his plane ticket and keys in it. So we do a wide range of commercial jobs."

Besides the different classes offered and selling, inspecting, and renting out scuba gear, Scuba Inc. also offers diving trip packages to clients. Messinger said there are usually 35 to 40 diving trips a year. Clients have the option of either planning their own diving trip or taking one of the pre-planned trips.

Kivlahan said the trip to the Bahamas offered through Cat Ppalu cruises is one of the most popular. Other favorites are the Cayman Islands in the Western Caribbean Sea and Belize in South America.

Jeff Caldwell decided to become an instructor for the shop after he received his instructor certification from Scuba Inc.

"I love to dive and love to make great divers out of people," Caldwell said. "I want others to experience all of the beautiful underwater things that I do."

Messinger said he and the others at Scuba Inc. all work toward "creating better divers and turning diving into a lifelong hobby they love."

 


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