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Community's residents celebrate 40 years

Sun City Center, a haven for retirees in southern Hillsborough, offers a self-contained world for its residents. They say they love it.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 30, 2002

SUN CITY CENTER -- When Len Perry moved to Florida from New York, his doctors gave him just two years to live. His heart wouldn't last much longer, they said.

He expected to plan for his burial.

Twenty-two years later, he's defying the odds and credits his longevity to Sun City Center, Florida's oldest self-enclosed retirement community and a model for others nationwide.

"I found what Ponce de Leon was looking for," he said.

Perry, 76, and his wife, Elaine, were among more than 500 residents who celebrated their community's 40th anniversary Sunday. And though they skipped the Happy Birthday, they rejoiced in the past and looked forward to a future filled with retiring baby boomers.

A few arrived in golf carts, the preferred mode of transportation.

"It's the greatest town there ever was," said Elaine Perry, 73. "I would never live anywhere else."

Her one complaint: no decent restaurants.

The party marked the grand finale of the community's yearlong celebration. Founded by developer Del Webb, Sun City Center -- and the adjacent, gated Kings Point neighborhood -- has grown to 16,000 residents and about 8,000 homes and apartments.

People who live there say they love it. They play golf, swim, dance and go to parties. Many boast about never having to leave.

"There's no place like it," said local historian John Bowker, who moved to the southern Hillsborough enclave 11 years ago.

Like a lot of residents, Bowker and his wife discovered Sun City Center after an exhaustive, nationwide search. They covered 96,000 miles in their motor home in 51/2 years. When they saw the palm trees, green grass and neat houses of Sun City Center, they knew they had found their utopia.

Meeting their neighbors clinched the deal.

"We have more friends here than in 38 years in New Jersey," he said.

At 72, Bowker is the same age as the average resident of Sun City Center, which has its own hospital, post office, stores and churches. Rules require homeowners to be at least 55, up from 50 when the community opened.

Webb, who also developed retirement communities in Arizona and California, sold the Florida property in 1972. A few other companies owned it before WCI Communities took over in 1987.

Al Hoffman Jr., WCI's chief executive officer, on Sunday credited residents for helping rejuvenate the community. When WCI took over, the golf courses were brown and the public facilities showed their age.

"It had the look of an abandoned property," he said.

Today, the 5,000-acre community shines, Hoffman said, thanks to residents' generosity and neighborly spirit. Volunteerism continues to fuel the neighborhood associations and more than 200 civic and social clubs.

WCI plans to leave Sun City Center and Kings Point in about seven years, after the remaining 2,000 lots are sold. New homes run from about $115,000 to $300,000, compared with $10,000 in the '60s.

Hoffman expects the newcomers will be younger and wealthier. Unlike previous retirees who had only Social Security, more baby boomers have pensions and 401(k) plans.

Instead of tiny houses with carports, they want palaces, with two-car garages and screened pools. Instead of croquet and lawn bowling, they want spas and fitness centers.

Residents say the weather, location and affordable housing will continue attracting people, just as those things attracted them.

"We just love it here. The amenities, the people. Everyone is so friendly," said Walter Geissler, 69, a homeowner since 1996.

Like the Perrys from New York and plenty of his neighbors, Geissler plans to be around for years to come, including the next anniversary party.

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