Article Featuring BSF in the Independent Herald

Big South Fork Airpark takes life

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Gaining a heartbeat. That’s how developer Bill Armstrong describes the current status of the Big South Fork Airpark, as residents begin to settle in and new homes go up. Scott Countians whose only perception of the upscale development adjacent to Scott County Airport is the view in passing from John Long Road — and that would be most — are amazed when they see just how far the fledgling community has come.

The Big South Fork Airpark is more than just a fancy welcome center at the end of a paved road in the back of an open field. The airpark already has three full-time residents, several part-time residents, and six homes currently under construction. T-hangars have been built; a taxiway is near completion. In all, 14 homes have been finished or are currently under construction, and more than three dozen lots have been sold.

A Breath of Life

It’s Friday morning and Armstrong — most folks call him B.A. — is chatting up the airpark when he’s briefly interrupted by a phone call. It’s a resident of the airpark, wondering what time she and her assistants can begin decorating the development’s visitor center for a Halloween bash that’s being planned for airpark residents later in the evening.

“It’s actually taking on a life now,” says Armstrong from the sprawling visitor center’s kitchen. “We can have our residents come together now for community functions. That’s exciting for me, because I’ve been here from day one.” “Day one” was eight years ago, in 2006. Back then, it was Armstrong and local resident Joe Potter pushing dirt for the “main road” into what would become the Big South Fork Airpark. “People always ask, ‘Why did you end up here?’” Armstrong said. “We’re not here by accident.”

The rolling 400 acres that borders the airport on one side and the 125,000-acre national park on the other was old Swain family land. One of Armstrong’s business partners, Gary Gallagher, is married to a Swain. Armstrong, Gallagher and their other partner, Tom Donald — together they make up Group 3 Investments — were developers by trade. Gallagher and Donald have backgrounds in aviation. And all three were familiar with air parks — which, in 2006, were just beginning to take off in popularity across America.

With the availability of an airport that is far ahead of the curve as far as rural municipal airports are concerned, what to do with the property was a no-brainer. “The idea was an easy decision,” Armstrong said. “The rest of the details, not so much.” The attractions of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area were obvious. The attractions of Scott Count Airport were the copious amount of runway asphalt, the 24/7 availability of fuel, the on-site maintenance provided by privately-owned ATS Tennessee and the airport’s state-of-the-art instrument approaches — very unusual for a rural airport. “Those things for an air park are very unusual,” Armstrong said. “They can come in and fly their plane on autopilot and it’ll bring them down to 200 feet. Our residents love it.”

Together, the national park and the airport make Big South Fork Airpark one of the nation’s most unique air parks. “There are 75 air parks in Florida,” said Armstrong, who himself hails from Tampa. “But what do you do when you get there? Good luck. Here, we border a national park that offers everything — fishing, hiking, camping, the river, you name it. We let the property sell itself.

Humble Beginnings

Armed with those selling points, Armstrong and Gallagher teamed up for an $8 million investment in 2006. In October of that year — exactly eight years ago — they hired Potter. He showed up with a dozer, pushed a road through the open field and into the woods where the air park would be situated, and construction was soon underway. It would be easy to say that the rest was history. Except that it wasn’t exactly that easy. In 2008, shortly after the first lots began to be marketed, the national economy hit dire straits. The markets crashed. The healthy real estate market of 2006, when the BSF Airpark was conceived, took it squarely on the chin.

“Imagine our surprise when we turned the TV on in 2008 and the DOW was crashing,” Armstrong said. But Armstrong persevered. The air park’s development was slowed by the sluggish economy in 2009 and 2010, but began to slowly take on a form. These days, with a healthier real estate market, interest in the air park is picking up. “The market in general is stronger, and folks are feeling more comfortable about their 401Ks and their investments,” Armstrong said. “Real estate will always be a good investment. The man upstairs isn’t making any more.”

Over the last 18 months, the air park has seen strong sales. But, more importantly, the development has seen a significant uptick in construction. Armstrong says that is the key. “We’re in the final stages of doing what we have to do to make this place a community,” he said. “We’ve sold land, we’ve developed utilities, the infrastructure is done. Things are in place now. The last key piece in the puzzle is giving the place a heartbeat.” With six new homes currently underway, Armstrong envisions five or six next year and five or six the year after that. At this pace, he says, the air park could have 15 to 20 homes within 18 months. And the fun part? The BSF Airpark is still in its beginning stages. There’s an entirely separate phase of construction that could eventually bring the total number of homes inside the air park to 140. And the air park has an option on another 400-acre tract of property on the opposite side of John Long Road. The potential of the air park is nearly unlimited.

BSF’s Selling Point

“I’m still amazed by the beauty of Scott County, being from Florida my- self,” Armstrong says. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” The sheer beauty of the Big South Fork NRRA and Scott County’s corner of the northern Cumberland Plateau in general is a big selling point for the Big South Fork Airpark. The average clientele are soon-to-be retirees — couples in their 50s or 60s — who are invested in aviation and like the idea of being able to fly in to the community, then enjoy a slower pace of life once they get their feet on the ground. The BSF Airpark offers some lots along a taxiway so that residents can taxi their plane straight to their home, and several of those lots have sold. But the map — Armstrong places color-coded stickers on each lot that is under contract or under construction — doesn’t lie. The bulk of the sold lots are grouped further into the development, with views that overlook the scenic Pine Creek gorge towards the Big South Fork River. And while some of the air park’s residents are permanent residents, others simply want a vacation home. Armstrong points to one resident who is from Bermuda . . . but who will spend the rest of his life vacationing in Scott County, Tenn. “He’ll always live in Bermuda but he calls this his vacation retreat. When he and his wife want to take a vacation, they’re coming to Scott County from Bermuda to hang out on O&W Road on their four-wheelers.” That might seem strange to some lifelong Scott Countians, but from his outsider’s perspective, Armstrong doesn’t see it as an oddity at all. “Don’t discount this place,” he said. “You might question why you’d come from New York City to live in Oneida. But once you visit here it’s not hard to see it at all. “Take me for example. I’m from Tampa, and the beach is great. I still have a home there. But ask me where I live full-time? Oneida. And where do I prefer to be? Oneida.”

The development is billed as an air park and equestrian community. Horse trails have already been developed, winding through the air park with easy access to homes before descending into the Pine Creek valley to the air park’s 40-acre equestrian center. From there, riders have access to the national park’s equine trails beyond the O&W Bridge. One of the first things Armstrong does when showing potential clients the property, in fact, is to take them for an ATV ride down the O&W, where sandstone cliffs tower over the historic railroad bed and the untamed river tumbles through boulders beneath the stately bridge. “Once they’re here it’s an easy sale,” Armstrong said. “We have residents from California, Mary- land, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Alaska, and they come here and they’re just blown away.”

Vision Pays Off

Armstrong credits Scott County Airport Authority chairman Brom Shoemaker and former Scott County Mayor Rick Keeton for not laughing him off when they were approached about the air park idea eight years ago. It would have been easy for Shoemaker, Keeton and other county decision- makers to have just said no. The Federal Aviation Administration didn’t like the idea of “through-the-fence” developments — giving pilots access to private property adjacent to airports from the airports themselves — in Scott County or elsewhere in the U.S. They threatened to withhold grant funding, meaning improvements to the airport would have had to have been funded from the county’s tax coffers. It didn’t happen.

While funds were initially delayed, the FAA eventually signed off on the “through-the-fence” operation, the funds were released, and the airport now has $850,000 in grants that can be used for future improvements. “The airport board and Brom and Mayor Keeton, they saw the value here,” Armstrong said. “The county was very clear that they were willing to forge ahead with this project despite the FAA’s recommendations. And in the end, it wasn’t an issue. We’re thankful for our relationship with the airport board and the county. We couldn’t have done it without them.

Not One Red Cent

Armstrong is proud of the fact that the air park did not receive — did not even ask for — a single penny from Scott County in the form of taxpayer funding. “We didn’t say, ‘We’re going to invest $8 million in this development; what can you do for us?’” Armstrong said. “We feel like that’s pretty unusual. Instead, we said, ‘We’re going to invest $8 million in this development,’ and we didn’t ask for help.”

A common misperception locally is that tax funds have been used to assist with the development of the air park. Not only have no tax dollars gone into the air park, the airpark actually pays money to the airport for the lease of hangars and for the “through-the-fence” agreement. In other words, the airpark has been a money-maker for Scott County, and in more ways than one.

In 2005, the tax rolls for the property that would eventually be purchased for the air park show that $3,500 was generated in property taxes. Last year, that same property generated about $60,000 in property taxes, an increase of more than 1,600 percent. In all, the property has generated $213,000 in property taxes since 2008. And those numbers are from a fledgling community with 14 homes completed or under construction. Every time a lot is sold, the combined value of the property goes up. Every time a new home is constructed, the value goes up even more.

By the time all 140 lots have been sold and developed, the tax rolls on the air park property will fund a not-insignificant portion of Scott County’s operating budget. That’s a not-insignificant portion that does not have to be funded by the rest of the county’s property owners. “The numbers from property taxes are easy,” Armstrong said. “But what about the rest of it? Our residents shop in town. They go out and eat. Talk to Wayne’s Cycle and Thompson’s and find out how many ATVs our residents have purchased from them. I think it’s up to 15 or 18. “What’s been very important to us is keeping all of what we can control in the county,” Armstrong added. “We hire trades locally. We’ve got a couple of Barna homes here. Miller Paving does all our paving. Miller Concrete does all our concrete. We shop at Winco, at True Value. That money needs to stay here in the county and we understand that keeps people employed in Scott County.” Armstrong calls those things peripheral things that are often overlooked but should not be underestimated. “When you start thinking about 14 families living here that shop here and buy locally, it’s very satisfying,” he said. “It’s not going to save the world but it does help.”

Community Investment

As the Big South Fork Airpark’s residents build their homes and make the move to Scott County, they’re also becoming invested in the community in other ways. Armstrong points to one resident who has talked about opening a cafe and bakery, and said he expects others to explore similar investments. Then there are the less obvious investments. The community’s residents frequently participate in community events. At last month’s Hall of Fame Dinner to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Scott County, the air park purchased two tables — at $400 each — to help keep the club’s doors open. Count Armstrong among those who now consider Scott County home thanks to the BSF Airpark. “Before the Big South Fork Airpark, we were involved in several projects where we did the development, then sold it,” Armstrong said. “This one is different. I will never live anywhere else. I will retire here. I will not leave here.”

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