On a snowy Sunday afternoon, 10 ATVs rolled down the O&W, taking in the sights of a picturesque winter day in Big South Fork Country. On-board the side-by-sides were Bill Armstrong and a number of his neighbors from the nearby Big South Fork Airpark, which borders the national park adjacent to Scott County Airport.
The airpark, an upscale residential development for folks who are often aviation enthusiasts and who seek a quieter, more laid-back way of life away from the hustle and bustle of urban America, has quietly been growing into a full-fledged community — the kind of community where friends and neighbors can hop on their ATVs and enjoy a scenic drive.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. For a long time, a real, live, breathing community was just a vision for Armstrong — B.A., as he’s known by his friends and colleagues, and the face behind the airpark development.
“I laugh all the time, in the early years we’d have a potluck dinner for the community and six people would show up,” Armstrong said. “Now 45 or 50 show up. It’s a real community now. But it hasn’t always been that way. It’s taken years.”
The airpark development will turn 15 this fall. Back in 2006, when Joe Potter was on a dozer and plowing the first road into the 450-acre woodland tract adjacent to the airport, all Armstrong had was his vision. But, slowly, vision has become reality.
“The big picture, the 10,000 ft. picture, to use an aviation term, is we have planned 142 home sites and we’re probably halfway there,” Armstrong said. “We have 80 to 85 home sites sold.”
There are more than a dozen homes finished and being lived in. Two more are under construction. Plans have been approved for two more, with construction to begin in the spring. The airpark just recently moved into Phase III of its development — which means “we built new roads and put in new utilities,” Armstrong explained. More home sites are being added as growth continues.
A Slow Start
Initially, Armstrong didn’t plan on it taking 15 years to get “halfway there.” But unforeseen circumstances caused the airpark to engage in an uphill battle from the very beginning.
In October 2006, when the first shovel of dirt was moved on the 450-acre tract, the economy was raging. “The real estate business was en fuego,” Armstrong said. “Life was good.”
By the spring of 2008, when the first lots were being offered for sale after the appropriate infrastructure was put into place, things had changed dramatically. A global recession was underway. The real estate market crashed.
“The years of 2009 and 2010, and really parts of 2011 and 2012, were tough years in this business,” Armstrong said. “We were in a defensive position from the beginning.”
There were moments of doubt, of course. Armstrong had made a significant investment into his vision of an aviation community on the edge of the Big South Fork. And, suddenly, the real estate market was upside down.
“We started our business in the worst economy of my lifetime,” he said. “I was like, ‘What just happened?’ But we doubled down and kept plowing through and kept building. It was a really rough time, but we plowed through.”
Fast-forward to 2021, when a group of 10 neighbors who call the airpark home are enjoying a scenic drive down the historic railroad grade that bisects the BSF. Finally, the airpark is a community.
“We have seven to 10 big events a year — spring oyster roasts, fall low-country boils, a 4th of July fly-in, chili cookoffs, Memorial Day picnics,” Armstrong said. “It’s really fun. Yesterday I get a text from a neighbor going for a ride to the river to look at the snowfall, and 10 buggies show up. Everyone here is very social. These folks are very involved, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
A Pandemic Setback
The coronavirus pandemic that engulfed the world in 2020 proved to be another setback for the airpark community.
“People were unsure what they were dealing with,” Armstrong said. “It slowed significantly from March to July. Then, really, in mid July it picked back up and we had a good late summer.”
Overall, 2020 was one of the slowest years for sales that the airpark development has seen in quite some time. Armstrong attributes that to the pandemic. But the fourth quarter was a good one, and now it’s full steam ahead, as folks look to the scenic beauty of the Big South Fork and the attractiveness of one of rural America’s top-notch small-town municipal airports.
The Allure of BSF
What is it that draws people to Oneida and the fledgling airpark development? It’s the same thing that drew Armstrong — who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and moved to Scott County from Florida.
“Coming here 15 years ago, I was immediately taken aback by the beauty of this county,” he said.
The Big South Fork is the fifth-largest national park in the eastern United States. It’s also quite unlike any other east of the Mississippi River, with unique geology and geography that sets it apart.
“The landscape here is unlike none other,” Armstrong said. “I bring people from all over the world here and when they get here they are taken aback by how beautiful this county is.”
The mountains, the rivers and the cliff-lined gorges combine to create a sheer ruggedness that can be hard to appreciate if you’ve known it all your life.
“I get it. If you grew up here, you say, ‘What are you talking about?'” Armstrong said. “It’s the same as the beach. If you grow up at the beach, you never go to the beach. But the O&W, it’s just a river? No. It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking.”
The small-town, tight-knit community spirit is also attractive to people who are looking for a new home or a second home.
“There’s an independent spirit here that appeals to folks,” Armstrong said. “There’s an openness. I grew up in the inner city of Pittsburgh and I’ve lived in six major cities throughout my life, and now I live in a small town where everybody knows your name. You can leave your car unlocked and walk into Walmart. There’s a lot of appeal in that.”
Plus, Armstrong adds, “The people in this county are the nicest people I’ve met anywhere in my life. There’s a charm about this county, and it’s very evident when you get here.”
The Role of the Airport
The scenic beauty of the Big South Fork aside, an aviation community cannot happen without an airport that can accommodate it, and Scott County Airport has long been recognized as one of the best municipal airports that rural America can offer.
“There’s no comparison,” Armstrong said. “It’s first class. There are very few counties with 22,000 people that have a 5,500-ft., lighted, paved, GPS-approach airport with 24-hour fuel, a maintenance facility, a brand-new FPO. It’s just very unusual for a town this size.”
The airport was heavily influenced by the late Howard H. Baker Jr. As a prominent United States Senator who would eventually be the chamber’s leading legislator, Baker needed an airport that could accommodate his travel between his Huntsville home and his office in Washington.
“We all know that was Baker’s influence,” Armstrong said. “But that makes this airport in rural America a crown jewel. Aviators come from all over the country and when they see this they go, ‘Are you serious?'”
As the airpark continues to grow, the community spirit surrounding it will continue to grow. It’s already notable. Last February, before the pandemic nixed most events, the airpark hosted a chili cookoff fly-in. Thirty-five planes landed at the airport for the event.
The airpark’s residents are involved and engaged in the community. Armstrong himself is on the board of directors of the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau, and several of the airpark’s other residents are involved in the club, as well. They’re also involved in their churches and in other civic activities. Armstrong jokes that the airpark — whose residents are largely Catholic, though there are Baptists who live in the development, as well — doubled the parishioner group at St. Jude in Helenwood.
“These folks are retired and they’re anxious to go out and help in the community,” Armstrong said. “You see these folks working at food banks, helping in the community, and it’s a great thing to watch.”
The community involvement is just one of the benefits of the growing airpark to Scott County. Another is the commerce that is generated by the airpark, as residents shop at local businesses and as new construction creates work for contractors and a demand for building supplies. Finally, there’s the tax boon to Scott County.
Back in 2006, before the airpark development began, the 450-acre tract of forest generated $3,800 annually in property taxes. This year, the airpark will pay the county close to $60,000 in property taxes. For perspective, that’s about two cents on the tax rate for every other property owner in Scott County, combined. It’s a little that adds up, and that will keep adding up as new homes are added and property values climb.
“These families don’t have kids in school,” Armstrong said. “Most of them are retirees. So they’re not really using county services. It’s a good deal for the county.”
The airpark also benefits the airport. Not only do its residents buy fuel from the airport and pay maintenance fees, but last year they paid $21,000 to the airport in annual fees alone.
“It goes a long way to help the airport,” Armstrong said. “It’s not just us; Wayne Hughes and his team at ATS make a big difference as well. But it helps. It’s very unusual to have a small-town airport that breaks even, but Scott County Airport is an airport that runs in the black.”
As the airpark continues to grow, perhaps its overreaching accomplishment is introducing the uniqueness of Scott County to the world. No one knows that better than Armstrong — a man who saw Scott County first as a business opportunity and now sees it as home.
“I can tell you on a personal level that I’m very happy to live and work in Scott County and I’m never leaving,” he said. “That wasn’t always the plan. We were going to build a community, sell it out, and move on. But this is my home now. I live here, and I’m never leaving. I’ll die in Scott County.”