- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

LUMBERTON, Miss. (AP) - As a businessman, Paul Nettles hated to see the closure of what he considered a cog in the economic engine of Lamar County.

As an outdoorsman, the shuttering of Little Black Creek Water Park for the better part of a year took away a familiar spot just three miles from his home that he and family and friends had enjoyed for decades.

“What it is, we are business people in the community,” said Nettles, owner of Bad to the Bone restaurant and Pine Belt Services Inc. “We own businesses in Purvis and Lumberton, and by opening that back up, it will help Lamar County and our businesses as well, as well as other businesses by getting that influx of people, as well as the locals.

“But it’s such a beautiful place and so convenient to our house, we hated to see it close. We like to fish, like the outdoors. We’re outdoors people and hated to see it shut down.”

So, Nettles approached the park’s overseer, the Pat Harrison Waterway District, and pitched the idea of leasing the property from the state agency.

In December, the PHWD board of directors voted unanimously to award Nettles, his wife, Jane, and their son, Jordan, a 50-year lease on the 640-acre property located between Purvis and Lumberton.

The Nettles reopened the park immediately, renaming it Little Black Creek Campground and Park, and for the past few weeks, a crew of 10 has been on site, clearing accumulated debris, sprucing and repairing camping areas, refitting cabins and shower houses and re-grading boat ramps to the lake.

“They called and said, ‘Y’all have been awarded the bid, y’all can start doing cleanup as soon as possible,’” Paul Nettles said. “That was on a Thursday or Friday, and by that Monday, we had started cleaning up.

“I had people out there picking up limbs, cutting up trees that were dead and fell, blowing leaves, just cleanup.”

And people have started returning to the grounds, which are now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“That’s what we want people to know,” Paul Nettles said. “We’re open, we’re excited about being the new proprietors, and we think we’re going to do quite well with this.”

Pat Harrison would like that as well.

The park, one of nine in the district, had been closed for long stretches since the Lamar County Board of Supervisors voted in September 2011 to withdraw as a Pat Harrison member.

The district said the loss of the county’s annual membership, about $390,000, caused a shortfall in its operating budget, forcing the closure of Little Black Creek Water Park from June 1, 2012, to Sept. 1, 2012.

The county, which received no revenue from the park and had no voice in its management, argued that its fee never had been earmarked specifically for the park’s operations and the district had sufficient funds in reserve to maintain the park.

The district sued the county, arguing that it should not be able to abandon its membership or, if permitted to leave, it still was required to contribute money to support the park “in perpetuity.”

Two trips to Forrest County Chancery Court confirmed that state statute provided a process that any member county could follow to leave the district, and that the same statute limited a county’s financial liability to whatever obligations were owed or shared on the date the county announced its exit.

The latter ruling was appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court with a decision expected sometime this year.

The park, which had been reopened in late 2012, was closed again after the chancery court’s ruling.

That’s when Nettles approached the district and asked if they would be open to an arrangement to privatize the park.

Pat Harrison attorney Jolly Matthews said the district took six to nine months to consider whether it wanted to take that step.

“It’s new territory for us, which is why we took so long and proceeded very slowly,” he said.

Eventually, the district decided to advertise for bids.

“It wasn’t our preferred plan of action, but in light of everything that’s going on, our board of directors determined that this was the best thing at this time,” Matthews said.

The lease, which will be reviewed and renewed in 10-year increments, will pay the district about $100,000 annually.

“When you don’t have the support of your local supervisors, it makes it hard to provide the services to the citizens and taxpayers and maintain that property,” said Hiram Boone, Pat Harrison executive director. “This was a way to open the park back up.

“We’ll retain the rights. (They’re) just going to operate it.”

Jordan Nettles said he and his family have plans for major upgrades within the next year or so, including:

- Restocking of the lake and a smaller “perch pond.”

- Expansion of the beach and swimming area, including the installation of a splash pad and pool.

- Creation of a skiing area at one corner of the lake.

- Adding an on-site “general store.”

- Replacing furniture at all of the park’s cabins.

- Selling timeshares to five cabins and 15 camping areas.

“We want to bring in some attractions and make this self-sufficient, if that’s the right word,” Jordan Nettles said. “We plan on taking a lot of the money that’s first taken in and re-invest it back into the park.”

Paul Nettles said he has been pleased with the reopening’s initial response, which has included 2,000 “likes” on the park’s Facebook page and a steady stream of phone calls.

The park will stage a “grand opening” April 11-13 with an inaugural Crawfish Festival. Fireworks are scheduled for Friday and Saturday that weekend, as well as live entertainment and vendors.

“We already have booked up all the cabins and campsites for that weekend,” Paul Nettles said, “and the next weekend, Easter weekend, we’re getting all kinds of calls on that, too.

“It’s just amazing to have that many people taking an interest in it that quick.”

While the Nettles may be pleased with the rapid response, they said they will be at the park for the long haul.

“I don’t see a problem with that,” Jordan Nettles said. “Fifty years, and renew it after that, and then, hopefully, my kids will be there.”

___

Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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