July 6, 2013 6:38:13 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Like many county residents, John Barnett spent many of his younger days at the Oktibbeha County Lake.
He grew up down the road from the body of water and learned to ski at the lake. Over time, Barnett said, the elements began overtaking the lake, transforming the once-beautiful landmark.
During a trip to the lake with his longtime friend and former Mississippi State University men's basketball coach Rick Stansbury, Barnett said he decided to actively bring the lake back to prominence and provide an attraction local families would enjoy.
"We just happened to be out here riding on a Sunday afternoon. The lake was closed, but we sat out looking at it and talked for a bit," Barnett said. "We decided this is the most beautiful place here in Oktibbeha County."
Barnett and his wife, Debbie, along with Stansbury and his wife, Meo, banded together and established Starkville Wet 'N Wild, a small water-park on the shore of the county lake. The group gained control of the lake after the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks declined to renew a longterm lease for most of the property. Earlier this year, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors leased a small portion of the lake to the investors after they assured fishing access would still be granted to county residents.
The Barnetts scraped clean a portion of the shore by the Amy Tuck Multipurpose Building, trucked in white sand, buoyed off a swimming area and built four elevated water slides for children before the park's Independence Day opening.
Despite bad weather in the area on July 4 and not engaging in any traditional advertising for the park's opening, Debbie Barnett said 151 people turned out to celebrate the opening.
"We had a big group prayer before we opened that day, and the Lord smiled on us," she said.
Four days into operations, the couple says families are supporting the venture because of word-of-mouth endorsements and active social media campaigning. Many residents would rather drive a few miles out of town and spend an afternoon at the lake than drive about five hours to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Debbie Barnett said.
"There's not just family interest, though, because companies and groups have asked us about private retreats and parties. Churches have even asked us about holding baptisms here," John Barnett said.
"Beach weddings are drawing interest, too; same thing with birthday parties," Debbie added. "There's nothing like it around here in Oktibbeha County."
The park is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 1-6 p.m. on Sunday. The admission fee is $12 (2 years and under are free). For Campground information & reservations, call 769-2012.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch