Former Mississippi State University basketball coach Rick Stansbury wants to jettison his Oktibbeha County Lake lease and sell Starkville Wet N Wild waterpark and its associated campground improvements to the county.
Board members indicated they want an attorney general’s opinion on whether the county could proceed with acquiring and operating the business, and supervisors also passed the matter along to the Golden Triangle Development LINK for an economic impact study.
If a deal cannot be reached with the county, Stansbury is expected to put his proposal up for a public sale.
A specific asking price was not outlined in the letter of intent supervisors discussed this week, but an October letter broaching the subject from Stansbury to District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer states the now-Texas A&M assistant coach first asked for $2 million for the waterpark and KOA Campground. His group previously invested roughly $1.5 million into improvements, Stansbury’s letter to the board president states.
Stansbury and his wife, Meo, formed a partnership with local residents John and Debbie Barnett in 2012 and took over expiring leases for the county lake and the former Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks facilities adjacent to its shoreline.
Those agreements included roughly 400 acres of combined 16th section land and general county property, which include the body of water and the land where MDWFP facilities were located.
Documents show the Barnetts later transferred their 10 percent ownership of Starkville Wet N Wild LLC to the Stansburys and states the former basketball coach wants out of managing the area.
“We think we have accomplished (adding a way for the community to enjoy the outdoors) and are very proud of our businesses, and both have exceeded our expectations, particularly as absentee owners. It has been hard as absentee owners to keep our hands around it and finish up the things that we planned, which would add substantial income,” Stansbury wrote in his October letter. “With the potential of the businesses, we think this is more than a fair asking price.”
After reviewing Stansbury-supplied financial reports, Trainer said he sees a lot of potential in the property for the county. Specifically, he said, county ownership would ensure the area remains open to the public. Whether usage fees would continue with the lake back under Oktibbeha County management is still undetermined.
“I know what the role of government is, but this is a unique opportunity I think we should pursue. If we don’t, you have issues that could develop with the lake and the road. One of the things I fear is whoever gets it could come in and change the scope of who and what comes in. In a sense, they could turn a previously subsidized, man-made lake into a private body of water,” Trainer said. “(With a county deal), it would become a public facility, just like the hospital. If the county wanted to let people utilize it for free, it could. If it wanted it to continue to produce revenue, then I guess that money would go back into the general fund for our county purposes.”
Trainer said the board should move forward with negotiations before the offer comes off the table.
“I think ($2 million) is very negotiable. We could come back with an offer. Whether he’d take it? Hey, we’ll see,” he said. “We have a lot of things going on, but having the lake could be very beneficial to the county.”
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said he was concerned about the appearance of the county purchasing a property and moving forward with operating the business aspects involved with the waterpark and campground areas.
Additionally, a deal would likely require the county to move assets – maintenance and payroll for operations and upkeep – to cover future operations.
“There are opportunities for a great business model that a private business owner or partnership could form that would benefit the area and be profitable, but I don’t see Oktibbeha County getting involved as a good idea,” Montgomery said.
Both he and Trainer said the board is in a good position to make the right call because of District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller’s experience managing the Miss. Horse Park.
Miller said she’ll continue to study the specifics of the operations budget Stansbury provided the county before advising the board on how to move forward.
“This is a big potential undertaking and investment for the county. There are many issues involving this proposal, and all need to be reviewed,” she said. “The board requested an attorney general to see if this is even an option for the county because it is being presented as a profit-making opportunity. After all facts are gathered, the board will make a decision based on what is in the best interest for our county.”
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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