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Andrews family puts down stakes in Milton to operate Fox Fire KOA

Aug. 25, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

midst of what was a wet and hot Fourth of July weekend, Brent Andrews found himself digging a hole in a downpour to replace a water pipe that burst under the pressure of an RV backing onto the saturated grass.

All in a day's work for the owner of Fox Fire KOA in Milton, who laughs about the incident that left his shirt and shorts covered in mud.

"It's different than anything I've ever done and thought it would be," said the former banker who bought the campground in early 2007 with his wife, Sheila. "But, God, I love it."

Andrews said a water pipe bursts about once a summer, and it's become almost second nature to make such repairs at the campground, located along U.S. 60 just west of Milton. But six years ago, he was learning on the fly after he and his family made the decision to sell their Tennessee farm, horses and numerous possessions in order to make the down payment on the property, which he boughtow-closed Fox Fire Resort.

The property boasts of dozens of RV, camper and tent sites; three camping cabins; a renovated bath house, laundry and restroom facilities; two lakes, one of which has a beach for swimming; a playground; bike rentals; and a gem mine for the kids.

It also has earned the 2013 KOA President's Award and Founder's Award.

The family -- which has a deep history of camping and hiking -- has taken great strides and spent a considerable amount of money to make the campground a success.

"I work a half-day every day," Andrews said, then paused to add, "Nine a.m. to 9 p.m. That's half a day."

Camping had been in their blood, though, as Andrews recalled early childhood memories of camping with his parents. They took many of the same trips with their daughters, Ashley and Katie Jo, in both tents and a camper.

But this wasn't a weekend trip to the mountains. This was the biggest change of their lives.

A big change

Andrews said the 1990s were tough on him personally, as bank mergers left him without a job five times. He then worked as a consultant for several years, which came with an even more demanding schedule of spending weekdays in motels, shut in reviewing paperwork while eating too much takeout food that left him overweight.

Two things happened that changed everything, Andrews said. The most profound was reading "The Purpose Driven Life," a devotional book written by pastor and author Rick Warren.

"That changed my life and my family's life," Andrews said. "We're not here for us. We're here for God and because of God."

The second thing that happened was something he found while reviewing a client's loans. This client owned a campground and it was actually profitable, which surprised Andrews.

"He made money, and I never thought you could make money owning a campground," he said. "You just don't think of that when you are on vacation (at a campground)."

That prompted him to do an extensive search of campgrounds that were for sale, leading to a list of about 150 that he researched or visited during a two-year stretch. The Cleveland, Tenn., residents considered properties in several states, almost forming a circle around West Virginia. But this was one state Andrews hadn't considered at all.

"My broker asked me about West Virginia and Fox Fire and told me to go look at it," Andrews said. "I told him I wasn't moving to West Virginia, but he said if I didn't like it, he'd buy me dinner."

With nothing to lose, he packed up his family and drove 350 miles to Milton.

"We literally pulled in, and I said, 'This is what I've been looking for,'" Andrews said. "It wasn't your cookie-cutter property. There was something different about it."

After securing a down payment and attending a three-day campground ownership training course, they closed on the property in early 2007. For nearly four months, Andrews continued his consulting work Tuesday through Friday, then drove to Milton to work at the campground through the weekend.

He lived in the one big-ticket item his family couldn't sell: Their 28-foot camper. His wife and daughters moved into a rental home back in Tennessee to allow Katie Jo to finish middle school; Ashley to finish her first year of college; and Shelia to finish her teaching duties at Cleveland State University.

When they all arrived for Memorial Day weekend, they started a three-month stretch of four people, two dogs and a cat living in the close quarters of the RV, while the on-site retail store and lodge underwent renovations to turn the game room and storage areas into the family's new home.

They also were learning about KOA (Kampgrounds of America), a franchise chain of more than 450 campgrounds throughout North America. Andrews said the president of the company called him shortly after he purchased the property to welcome him to the camping world and discussed him investing in KOA.

Andrews said he was tapped out financially and had to borrow from his parents to purchase the franchise, a decision he said has allowed his family to operate a very profitable campground.

"I joke and say it was the second-smartest decision I ever made," Andrews said. "Joining KOA, hands down, it was huge."

More to come

This year has been another interesting one for the Fox Fire KOA. The neighboring Fox Fire Resort never opened this year and is now listed for sale. That has created a lot of confusion as people were calling daily to ask about the pool and water slide. Andrews said he has approached every phone call as an opportunity to tell them about the campground and found that many area residents didn't know it was separate or were surprised at its amenities.

He said they also received a boost earlier this year when KOA was featured on the CBS reality show "Undercover Boss." The features leaders of a variety of companies who go undercover to evaluate morale and production. That's what KOA chief executive officer Jim Rogers did, and it resulted in an 8 percent overnight increase in reservations nationwide.

What people learned, Andrews said, is that "today's KOA is not the KOA your parents and grandparents went to."

In fact, the company is implementing new branding concepts that will result in Fox Fire KOA adding two deluxe cabins and four premium tent sites with special amenities.

It makes for an exciting time for the campground and the family. Katie Jo Andrews said that was far from true when arrived. As a teenager, she said it was tough to leave her home and friends behind.

"I thought he was crazy," she said. "I thought, 'What has he done to our family?'"

However, Katie Jo Andrews now views it much more positively. She graduated from Cabell Midland High School, where she was in the marching band. Many of her band friends have worked summer jobs at the campground, including Jonathan Jones, who she is scheduled to wed in 2014.

"After that first summer, it was great," she said. "I learned so much about people and working with the public. I'm so grateful we decided to do this."

For more information about Fox Fire KOA, visit www.foxfirekoa.com or call 304-743-5622. It is located at 290 Fox Fire Road, Milton.