A drive in the country on a beautiful New Year’s Day in Northwest Arkansas took an unexpected turn for some friends visiting the area from Little Rock last year.
Having heard some land owned by Peterson Farms Inc. was for sale near Decatur in western Benton County, they headed that way and spent a few hours walking the wooded acreage overlooking pristine Crystal Lake. And they discovered the little airport that runs along the shores of the lake, located north of town just off Arkansas Highway 59.
As recreational pilots, Kris Shewmake and Mike Trusty were intrigued by the find and the bucolic setting, and soon mapped out a plan to develop a type of residential community that’s new to the area. A year later, Shewmake, a cosmetic surgeon, and Trusty, an engineer, are well on their way to developing the project they’re calling Crystal Lake Estates, a Premier Aviation Community.
The men bought Crystal Lake Airport and 232 acres for just over $1.33 million. The sale closed Dec. 1. Phase I of the project calls for about 80 homes, most with their own hangars, to be built on the property.
Aviation communities — also called fly-in communities or airparks — offer homes in a residential development built around an airstrip, much like lakefront communities in which homes have their own boat docks.
“Any time you can mix airplanes and water and a beautiful terrain, it’s a good mix,” Shewmake said. “So that’s what factored into this place, just the setting and how incredibly beautiful it is in that valley, with the hills and mountains on both sides and that lake there.”
The airport originally was part of Peterson Farms, the chicken production and processing business founded by the late Lloyd Peterson. He built Crystal Lake Airport, with its 3,863-foot asphalt runway, to fly his renowned Peterson Male chicks to markets around the world.
Shewmake and Trusty plan to have most of Phase I ready for potential buyers to view by March or April. This will entail having the lots cleared and ready to be put on the market, and building a spec home.
The property, which has three existing homes, already has gas and electricity, Shewmake said. The partners will put in roads and taxi lanes, and take care of needed repairs and maintenance.
“Hopefully we’ll be ready to have fly-ins and people looking at it this spring,” Shewmake said.
The last few years have seen the dissolution of the vast business interests of the Peterson family.
Starting in 1939, Peterson grew his chicken breeding and processing operations into the state’s 39th-largest private company, as ranked by Arkansas Business in 2002. The company boasted 1,900 employees and estimated 2001 revenue of $150 million.
In 2004, Peterson appointed his grandson, Blake Evans, as CEO, and when Peterson died at 94 in 2007, the company still had revenue of about $128 million.
But by then, the family was heavily involved in Bentonville-chartered ANB Financial NA, which was closed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in May 2008. Two months later, Peterson Farms sold its broiler operations, propane company and other assets to Simmons Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs for an undisclosed amount.
At the time, Evans cited rising feed and energy costs as the reason for the sale.
Today, Evans — son of Peterson’s daughter, Debra Evans — remains president of L&L Farms Inc., the family’s polled Santa Gertrudis cattle-breeding operation north of Rogers. L&L Farms also is the parent company of what remains of Peterson Farms, which produces broilers for Whole Foods Market and several genetic lines.
In September, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive John Aden and his wife, Kristal, paid $3.45 million for about 1,748 acres of farmland at auction from L&L Farms. The sale was part of a land dispersal of about 3,200 acres.
In December, Chambers Bancshares Inc. of Danville bought controlling interest in the $127.3 million-asset Peterson Holding Co., the parent company of troubled Decatur State Bank as well as Grand Savings Bank of Grove, Okla.
Decatur State Bank began losing money in late 2010, and lost $12.69 million in 2011. It has operated under a supervisory agreement with the FDIC since November 2011.
Shewmake said he doesn’t know yet how much they’ll ask for lots and homes at Crystal Lake Estates, but home sites will include estate-sized, two- to three-acre lots on the ridge overlooking the lake. Lakefront sites also will be prime lots, he said.
They plan to build a few spec homes, but lot owners also can build their own homes, he said.
“We’ll have pretty tight architectural standards,” Shewmake said, “because the area is very beautiful and very natural, and we want it to look in line with the colors that are there and the native stone.”
The property already has 21,000 SF of hangar and office space, but the new owners plan to build “a lot more” hangars.
The house that was formerly Debra Evans’ home will be a welcome center for the community, Shewmake said, and will serve “fly-in” breakfast or lunch.
“Pilots love to fly in somewhere for lunch,” he said. “It has a beautiful deck, it overlooks the runway and lake and everything. I think it’ll be the perfect place to show that property.”
A small house near the public fishing pier and picnic area ultimately will be the site of a restaurant that will be open to the public as well as to people who fly in, Shewmake said. An existing tennis court on the property will be resurfaced, he said, and they’re thinking about putting in some horseback riding trails.
Shewmake said they don’t know yet how much the entire project will cost, but he said it will be developed in several phases.
“We’re going to probably pre-sell some lots at a discount to encourage people to go ahead and buy in,” he said. “We’ve got four or five pilots who have already said they want to buy lots up there.”
As they get further along in the development process, he said, they’ll have a website, and advertise in aviation-related magazines and by direct marketing to pilots.
Shewmake sees the community appealing to people who work in the Bentonville area and want to live near their planes as well as retirees who settle in Northwest Arkansas.
“My wife and kids and I will probably retire up there,” Shewmake said. “I’m sure we’ll probably have a home up there before that, but I would like to settle up there. I love that part of the country. I always have.”