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Water park shutting down; condo project on the way

When the dog days of a Magnolia State summer arrive this year, people in the metro Jackson area are going to have to drive a few more miles if they want to enjoy a splash in a water park. After nearly a quarter of a century in business, Rapids on the Reservoir is closing.

The Ridgeland-based commercial real estate firm The Bryan Company has purchased the lease on the 25-acre site on the Ross Barnett Reservoir from owner Gary Bennett, who originally built the water park. Bennett did not disclose terms of the transaction, but did admit it was bittersweet.

“It is sad, but it is happy, too,” Bennett says. “It is very emotional for me, but it was a good business decision.”

Lagoons to slides

Bennett has spent a long, noteworthy career in park construction. He began in the late 1960s as a draftsman with Six Flags, helping construct Six Flags Over Georgia and working in both construction and management. From there, he crisscrossed the country, developing other Six Flags parks.

After helping build Six Flags Astroworld in Houston in the mid-1970s, Bennett returned to Georgia to raise a family, but he remained in the industry, helping construct what is now Six Flags Over America in 1980 in Washington, D.C.

Bennett’s direction — literally and figuratively — took a turn in the early 1980s. He got a call from a group of Jackson area businessmen who were interested in building a water park. Liking what he heard, Bennett moved his family to Mississippi in November 1983.

It was humble beginnings, indeed, for Bennett. He lived in a trailer on the site, which up to that time had been a sewage lagoon. But Bennett persevered, and Rapids opened in June 1984.

The water park’s opening was big news then, and was a pioneer in ways. For instance, Rapids provided the first gutter-less wave pool ever built in the United States.

“When I moved my family here in 1983, the Rapids project was the biggest thing going on at the Reservoir,” says Bennett.

However, the story looked as if it would not end happily. Shortly after Rapids opened, another water park — Waterland — opened nearby in Ridgeland. The competition was unexpected, and impacted Rapids’ revenues. With that, Bennett thought he saw the end to his affiliation with Rapids

Then, Bennett got a call from the owners of Waterland.

“They wanted to know if I wanted to buy it,” Bennett says. “I said, “I don’t believe so.’ But they said they would make it worth my while.”

From 1987-1995, Bennett operated Waterland before closing it and consolidating his holdings at Rapids in March 1996. Since then, the Reservoir area has grown tremendously, and the volume of traffic passing its gates each day on Spillway Road has increased dramatically.

However, Bennett says the market has not shown much growth, and since 1999 he has been unable to expand.

Enter The Bryan Company.

Bennett says he is thrilled that he is selling to a local company with a solid reputation. He did not supply details of the negotiations, but says the Pearl River Valley Authority, which oversees the Reservoir area, gave its approval of the lease purchase, and the deal finalized February 22.

Interestingly, The Bryan Company was established at approximately the same time as Rapids. A licensed real estate brokerage firm, it formed in 1986 to manage and market the properties developed by Bryan Homes (established in 1977) and Bryan Construction Company (established in 1981.

The Bryan Company plans to use the site for Mandalay, a $35-million condominium development. In addition to the 360-unit complex consisting of four-story structures served by elevators, amenities will include a lake, fitness center, jogging track, tennis courts and business center. It is also envisioned as mixed-use, with room for office space, shops and eateries.

John King, director of development at The Bryan Company, says his firm had been looking at the Rapids site for a couple of years. He says construction will begin immediately after the 30-day period Bennett and his team needs to close out Rapids.

King says a completion target date has not been set. Plans are still formulating, and The Bryan Company has hired a Texas firm to help in the planning process.

While the greater Jackson area loses a recreational venue, it also loses jobs. Rapids employs five to eight workers year round, but has approximately 200 employees on the payroll each summer. Bennett estimates that Rapids, over its history, employed some 7,500 workers, who served more than 2.2 million visitors.

Bennett and his team will be on site into March as loose ends are wrapped up. People who hold season passes for the upcoming summer will be reimbursed in full, according to Bennett. Personal equipment will also need to be removed. After that, Rapids will be no more.

Bennett says he does not plan on retiring. He sees other projects in his future, and has not ruled out a venue in the Jackson area.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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