Back to the reservation

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Sun ‘n Fun is coming, so GA now focuses on Florida. I’ve been eyeing residential airparks there. The biggest of them all: Spruce Creek Fly-In, seven miles southwest of Daytona Beach. Is it still the classic of the genre? Is it the place to turn inward and so re-create the “critical mass” of the GA we remember?

As GA shrinks, I always thought “true believers” would “retreat to the reservation.” Many do at Oshkosh every year. A fortunate few live amid their peers and planes in places like Spruce Creek. Airline pilots, retirees, avid GA’ers — active adults all — seek a place where Saturday morning can offer that special magic again — a busy airport full of interesting people.

Spruce Creek took off in 1970 after some Atlanta pilots saw an opportunity for Northeast Florida fly-in homes. The old Samsula Navy practice field lay fallow since World War II, except for teens drag-racing on its four big runways. Today, 1,300 households and the Spruce Creek Country Club course surround one generously wide 4,000-foot paved strip. Other runways are now part of 7FL6’s 14 miles of taxiways.

Spruce Creek’s original west-side areas are showing some age, although these (among 12 neighborhoods total) are still desirable for their trees and shade. Newer construction occupies most of the development’s 1,200 acres. In fact, “The Fly-In” boasts an amazing array of home types, ages and pricing.

Prices range from attached condos as low as $129,000 to $200-$400K free-standing homes and “hangar homes” from $500K to $1.2 million plus. Only a minority of homes has hangars, but aviation suffuses the place. Golf cart over to The Downwind Café and catch a passing homebuilt (T-34, T-28 or production beauty.) Drop in to check progress on the new MySky ONE tandem-seat LSA under development on the field.

But careful! Change is the only constant in Florida real estate today. Prices have fallen drastically and FAST. A once $650K Spruce Creek home backing to water and fairway was offered at a “sacrifice” $550K, then sold six months later for $360K. An end unit “plane port” home (condo with airplane “carport”) was once priced at $495K but eventually sold for nearly half that. A nearby middle unit sold recently for a remarkable $169K – with pool! Observers expect another 10% downside statewide. You won’t run out of bargains until late 2012, they say. Perhaps. Spruce Creek people rightfully note that The Fly-In is special, drawing new residents — even locals — who see it as the best area community with or without planes.

Some older residents are finding it’s time to sell and move back near the kids. And a few are being lost to time, including the well-known son of Bill Lear. But new buyers from Europe and elsewhere are being attracted by lower prices despite continuing turmoil in Florida’s homeowners insurance market. (This time, it’s a new hurricane risk model and Gulf Coast sinkhole claims!)

Less expensive and newer homes are widely available nearby, including some with club houses and golf. Daytona Beach’s down-at-the-mouth self-esteem and some rough-ish neighborhoods can be factors, however, as is Ormond Beach’s sleepy persona. The lure of Spruce Creek remains, enhanced by its out-of-town location between I-4 and I-95. And it’s just minutes from New Smyrna Beach’s funky Flagler Avenue or the picturesque Ponce Inlet area with its lighthouse and waterfront Tiki bars.

Spruce Creek is for pilots. On a Saturday morning, the “gaggle flight” departs en masse for breakfast somewhere. A fun-loving yahoo in a restored World War II Jeep cuts out for downtown with a big, irreverent smile. Guys in hangars are happy to talk. (My first trip there, I was offered a third of an older Varga “mini-T-34” for $15,000. Yes!)

It’s still a gated community (and private runway) but you CAN drive in. Check in with security and declare your destination as The Downwind Café. (Don’t pull this on Monday. It’s closed!) Or drop in on Lenny and Pat Ohlsson, long-time proprietors of Spruce Creek Fly-In Realty. Theirs is only one of several firms selling at Spruce Creek, but give the Ohlssons their due. They are true aviation people who loyally exhibit at Sun ‘n Fun and AOPA. Buy something and Lenny might fly you in the WACO UPF-7 that lives out back of the office!

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