Will area be wild about white water?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 19, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Keith Benoist has worked and waited for five years to get Natchez excited about a white-water rafting park.

Thursday morning, he saw progress, as a group of several dozen civic, government and tourism leaders met at the Callon Building to learn more about the parks.

&8220;This is do-able,&8221; Benoist said, as he introduced Bob Campbell, managing director of Whitewater Parks International of Glenwood Springs, Colo.

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Campbell, whose company designs and builds parks, said the facilities have economic benefits for communities.

&8220;It is more than just the people who get on the white water. A lot of other things seem to pop up around them,&8221; Campbell said. &8220;These parks have broad-reaching and beneficial effects.&8221;

Along with the white-water structure, he has seen cafes, climbing rocks, hiking trails, sports fields and other recreational facilities open nearby.

Not only do the parks benefit recreation and tourism, they provide a place where swift-water rescue teams can train during their winter seasons.

A white-water rafting park essentially is a man-made river, Benoist said. The &8220;river&8221; is designed with a rise on one end, from where the boats begin the descent into the track. Man-made obstacles create the rapids, as natural boulders do in mountains-area rivers.

A conveyor belt moves the rafts from the end of the course back to the starting area.

Benoist has located more than one site where a park would work &8212; on the Natchez and the Vidalia sides of the Mississippi River as well as sites not on the river.

Selecting the site is not the next step, however, Campbell said. &8220;The next step is a feasibility study,&8221; he said.

That study will look at the market and make sure the park will work in Natchez or Vidalia. &8220;We are committed to making sure something works before we build it,&8221; he said.

The feasibility study will compare possible sites and point out reasons why each will or will not work.

Campbell said he is impressed by the Natchez visitation statistics. That is a plus. And there are others, including an abundant supply of water and a warm climate.

Natchez Aldermen Bob Pollard and Jake Middleton attended the meeting and were excited about the idea.

&8220;I think we should try to incorporate this with the St. Catherine Creek project and make it large scale, do it along with a swimming pool and ball fields,&8221; Pollard said.

The St. Catherine Creek project centers on converting the winding creek into several recreational &8220;lakes,&8221; by using a series of dams.

Middleton said recreation should be high on the city&8217;s agenda. &8220;We still have so many things to do with recreation. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do it.&8221;

The white-water facility built for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, cost $6 million. It is too early in the stage of development to know the costs of a Natchez park, but estimates have centered on about $5 million.

Sites under consideration include Mississippi River bank sites north of Natchez and near the Vidalia Riverfront. Another site under consideration is the John Mansville plant site, which sits near the entrance onto the Natchez Trace and on the banks of the St. Catherine Creek.

Brent Bourland, an outdoors and canoeing enthusiast and member of the St. Catherine Creek project committee, said the white-water park is a good fit with Natchez.

&8220;These things can be built in a parking lot, but if you build one with the natural environment as part of it, the experience will be much more fulfilling,&8221; he said.

Benoist said he was pleased with the meeting and wants to get support to move to the next phase.

&8220;I&8217;m real excited, but I&8217;ve been excited for five years. I&8217;m glad we&8217;re talking about it.&8221;

Benoist&8217;s annual Phatwater Kayak Challenge, the City of Vidalia and the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau paid for Campbell&8217;s Thursday visit, $3,500 plus traveling expenses.

The feasibility study costs are based on the depth of the research, Campbell said. &8220;We&8217;ve done studies for $15,000 and for $100,000,&8221; he said.

Benoist said, &8220;I&8217;m convinced we can do it.&8221;