South Boston News & Record
and Mecklenburg Sun
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SoVaNow.com / July 24, 2014Just north of Elmo, where the small hills of the countryside push up against the outskirts of the Blue Ridge, Robie Potts looks out every day over some of Halifax County’s highest elevations.
It’s a place of lofty visions, literally and figuratively.
“Look at that — now that’s a smooth landing,” exclaimed Potts as a friend set down a loudly humming aircraft on the grassy landing strip at Potts Landing, the name for his 400-acre residential development that doubles as a gated, private airpark for aviation buffs.
The touchdown by Steve Huff, a Greensboro, N.C., pilot who arrived in a single-prop aircraft, was indeed smooth. So too is the appeal of Potts Landing: The community caters to serious aviators, if not necessarily serious people.
There are lots of parties there.
“You should see this place at Halloween,” said Potts’ wife, Joan, talking about the costume party that the couple hosts for friends and neighbors. Invites are adults-only, she quickly added.
Fun and adventure are selling points at Potts Landing, billed as Southside’s only airpark by its owners, the Pottses. To find an equivalent development, said Robie Potts, you’d have to travel all the way to Warrenton.
“They’re all over Florida — that’s how I’m familiar with it,” he said of the concept.
Potts’ journey to Halifax County is dotted by ups and downs and unexpected turns. After making his money in Florida in the repossession business (“It was nothing for us to take 300 pieces a month”), he became a partner in the real estate venture that bought the property of Wellspring Academy in bankruptcy after the boarding school for troubled youths went belly up a decade ago. After an initial run as Birch Creek Estates, Potts bought out his partners and changed the name to Potts Landing in 2009.
Five years later, the airpark continues to take shape where Wellspring Academy once stood: A dormitory has been converted into the community clubhouse, and Potts is considering a bed-and-breakfast operation to go into the building that once housed the school’s cafeteria. That is, unless he sells the property first; he may have an interested buyer for the rustic cabin building.
“I wake up every day, and I don’t know what’ll happen,” he said of the property’s future. “It’s incredible.”
To be sure, Potts Landing is primarily a real estate development: the rolling layout is consumed by the community airfield — a 1800 by 100 stretch of grassy, flat ground — as well as looping pavement and trail, six man-made ponds, various buildings, even a non-denominational church. There are 91 building lots, with the possibility of carving out more from unused acreage if buyer demand materializes. (Potts says he has sold 22 lots so far.) He has been approached about tailoring his development to hunters, equestrians, anyone looking to escape the urban bustle. Anything’s possible, he says.
But the main appeal of Potts Landing, he added, is the opportunity to “keep your airplane at home” and fly carefree through the uncrowded skies of southern Virginia. Afterwards comes the daily chance to sit out on a porch deck, looking off into the distance as the sun dips over the high hills.
To those who would say equally relaxing experiences are readily available elsewhere, Potts has a ready retort: “This place is golden.”
He means not only Potts Landing, but his adopted home of Elmo and Halifax County.
“I have done commercial, residential property [development] in Florida,” said Potts, his spiel quickening. “I gotta tell you, it’s unbelievable how everyone is treated as an individual here” — at county offices, by local residents, by businesses, “even at the DMV.” In Florida, by contrast, “you can’t get 15 minutes of anyone’s time there. You’re just a number. If you’re in Florida, it’s like, ‘Next!’”
During his early visits to Elmo to oversee the transformation of Wellspring Academy, Potts befriended several of the locals, including Ned Stebbins, a tobacconist and machine tinkerer who fixed up many a farm tractor before his death in 2012. Each year in memory of his late friend, Potts enters a tricked-up vehicle in the Elmo 4th of July parade to pay homage to the legend of farmer Stebbins — “a self-taught, brilliant engineer,” said Potts.
“He was amazing.”
The men shared a love for fixing up engines and machines, mostly farm tractors in Stebbins’ case, while Potts’ tastes run more on the exotic side. (Inside an aircraft hanger on the property, Potts keeps his single-prop biplane, several of his motorcycles — out of eleven total — a speedboat to go with his fishing trawler, which he has repurposed as a yacht and keeps moored at Smith Mountain Lake, and finally, a used motorcoach bus, which Potts is converting into an RV.) Potts’ mechanical training dates back to his early days as an Buffalo-area iron worker; Stebbins’ mastery of farm tractors was matched by few, but tinkering gave the men common cause. One other difference: Stebbins had never been up in an airplane until meeting Potts. One low-flying adventure sated his curiosity.)
Contact with the neighbors around Elmo has turned Potts into a vocal booster of all things local. “Every neighborhood has its wishy-washy neighbors, its bad politicians, its crooked cops. This place here, it’s just a great community. It’s small. But it’s going to take off,” he said.
His own possibilities with the airpark runneth over, to hear Potts tell the tale: He is considering various options, from becoming a sales dealer for a new model of ultralight amphibian aircraft (by Cygnet; pricetag about $24,000), to opening a bed and breakfast operation and craft brewery, to staging concerts, banquets, receptions and other gatherings at a pavilion and amphitheater he has on the drawing board to build. He is breaking ground soon with a side business, Aviation Alternatives, that provides laser scanning and topography mapping from the air. (The technology, dubbed LiDAR, was used last year to locate what is believed to be Ciudad Blanca, the mysterious lost city of gold in Honduras.) One of the busiest sidelights at Potts Landing may be the most essential: flight training. Liberty University’s aviation program is a regular customer, with students flying in from Lynchburg on a regular basis.
Potts’ ambitions for the airpark have been slowed by an overall weak real estate market, but he’s optimistic about the chances of fixing Halifax County on the aviation community’s map. “It’s endless here. We do something new every day,” he said, before pausing a split second. “I hope I live long enough to do half of them.”
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