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Retirement boom town

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[Times photos: Michael Rondou ]
The golf cart is king at the Villages, with special lanesalong the main roads just for carts. To maintain asmall town atmosphere, the development is dividedinto 24 neighborhoods, or ""villages.'' Villa Escandido shown here, is still under construction.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


Did someone say retirement? At the Villages community in Central Florida, residents are too busy to rest.

They started with Main Street, of course, and lined it with imitation gas lamps. The first block resembles the Old West, with one-story, adobelike buildings, a "U.S. Marshall's Office" and a gunsmith.

"Turn of the century" buildings dominate the next block, including a brick and stone "Cattlemen's Association."

Then comes Town Square, with a quaint band shell, a dance hall and a free-standing town clock. Nearby sits a train station, minus the tracks.

Given the decor, a visitor might expect mock gunfights to break out at 12, 2 and 4 p.m.

But this is no theme park. It's the honest-to-goodness downtown of a retirement juggernaut that is rapidly gobbling up cattle pasture in three Central Florida counties.

Rand McNally installed the Villages on its maps this year, and already it outranks Pinellas Park in size and Tarpon Springs in population. Four new homes spring up every day. In 10 years, it will overtake Ocala as the biggest community between Orlando and Gainesville.

"It's the fastest-selling retirement community in the history of Florida," says home building consultant Marvin Rose. "And they are doing it virtually in the middle of nowhere."

What's the secret?

The Villages fulfills the yearnings of the "active adult" market: energetic young retirees who want to stay busy and consort with their own kind in a safe, controlled environment. Says Villages quilting club president Judy Zerbe, "We worked hard, we raised our kids and now we are ready to smell the roses."

Other developments throw up a golf course and tennis courts and enforce no-kids rules. But when residents want to take in a movie or visit the doctor, they have to hop in their cars and fight traffic to the nearest urban area.

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Got to run out to Publix? Why mess with struggling in and out of some stuffy automobile when you can pull your golf cart right into this pint-sized parking lot?
The Villages, far from any major city, is self-contained. The downtown commercial district is home to 16 restaurants, an eight-screen movie theater, two bowling alleys (smoking and non-smoking), a travel agency, a florist, a baker, an ice cream shop, a microbrewery, attorneys, stockbrokers, churches, Publix, Winn-Dixie, Eckerd Drugs and, soon, a Belk department store.

A daily newspaper with 25,000 circulation and a cable news station chronicle everything that moves.

A phalanx of pink stucco walls and red tile roofs designate dozens of medical specialists, an outpatient surgical center and an urgent care center. A hospital is in the works.

The Villages is orderly, the Villages is predictable. Residents stay for months without ever leaving the grounds.

Most of the houses are less than 5 years old, built in similar styles, painted in muted, inoffensive colors. Picket fences are vinyl, for easy washing. Kids under 18 can't stay more than 30 days a year. Hedges can't exceed 4 feet. Families are limited to only one pet, which can't "make any unreasonable amount of noise."

These are hardly traditional neighborhoods with quirky hangouts, ethnic restaurants or architectural diversity. But the people who live here feel at home. They describe their community with words like "Mayberry" and "Norman Rockwell."

"The common denominator among our people -- they are small town people," says Villages chief executive officer Gary Morse. "New York is one of our biggest states that people come from, but we don't have one person from the five boroughs. We have a handful of people from Chicago, but more from Peoria."

About 3,000 residents moved in last year, bringing the population to 21,000. That's four times faster than any other Florida retirement community is growing.

Before long, the Morse family figures, they'll have to build a second downtown out on County Road 466, which is now the Villages' southern edge.

Nothing too big. They're thinking this time they'll try a Key West theme.

Golf carts are to the Villages what the cable car is to San Francisco: not just a means to get around, but a source of civic identity.

They are everywhere, bedecked with flags, bumper stickers, velour seats and license plates from Michigan, Indiana or wherever. With a little after-market tinkering, some carts hit 30 mph on a straightaway.

Nine out of 10 residents own a cart, even people who don't play golf. Model homes have oddly shaped garages: room for one car plus one golf cart. Publix has 35 tiny parking spaces reserved for golf carts. So many Villagers move down, sell their second car and buy a golf cart that northern Lake and Sumter and southern Marion counties have become a buyer's market for used cars.

"A lot of folks don't drive cars at all; this is their sole transportation," says Steve Bryant, manager of the Villages' Yamaha golf cart dealership. "A husband passes away, the widow has never driven. We give them a little driving lesson in the golf car, and away they go."

Main thoroughfares have special golf cart lanes or parallel golf cart paths, complete with underpasses so carts can cross from one side of the road to the other.

Where U.S. 27/441 slices through the middle of the Villages, the developer built a humped-back golf cart overpass that spans a four-lane federal highway, after a long battle with the Florida Department of Transportation.

In proper Villages tradition, the overpass is painted in fake brick and stucco to look about 200 or 300 years old, like a bridge over the Thames or Seine. When prospective buyer Judy Janssen first saw the overpass, she thought of Don Quixote. "All I could see was this guy with a big plume riding across that bridge."

Retired Navy cryptologist Flo Duffy, 61, moved to the Villages in July, after divorcing her husband of 32 years. She spent $5,654 for the golf cart she drives everywhere and $3,500 for a 1993 Mazda that she's driven only once.

"I think it's safer to have a golf cart. I think they are easier to manage," Duffy says. "The first time I went over the overpass, I let out a big "Yeehaw!' it felt so good."

* * *

Golf is a given. This is Florida, after all. The Villages' $104-a-month amenities fee covers free membership in nine "executive" golf courses (the smaller kind). Residents can also tee up on four regulation courses for less than $20 a round. To keep pace with growth, the developer adds the equivalent of one 18-hole course every year.

But to stereotype the Villages as a golfing community misses the point. This is the ultimate summer camp. Every week, there are hundreds of lectures, clubs, classes and amateur sports.

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"If you get bored here, you're nuts,'' says Town Square line-dancer Barb Damato, foreground. "I nev er played so hard in my life. In the first year I lost 36 pounds just on activities.''
Want dance lessons? Choose from ballroom, square, line, clogging, swing, round, tap, show and belly.

Clubhouse time is set aside for clowns, computers and calligraphy. People come together in the name of politics, religion and ethnic origin. One pool offers 21 water aerobics classes.

"It's kind of like living in a resort compound or being on a cruise ship without water," says Ed Nowe, a 67-year-old retiree from Oklahoma City. "I have more scheduled to do now than when I was working."

John and Judy Janssen, 61 and 58, plan to quit work, leave Ellicott City, Md., and find their place in the sun next year. Last year, they toured retirement communities in Central Florida.

"We started in the Tampa Bay area and moved up the coast," says Judy Janssen, the Don Quixote woman. "Traffic was so bad. It was bumper to bumper. We went to Celebration, and it was bumper to bumper there."

After a three-day introductory stay at the Villages, they put down a deposit for a lot.

"I went in there not wanting to like it. It seemed like going into a fantasy," she says. "But then we went to the swimming pool, we talked to people in the streets. We talked to people in the neighborhoods. We couldn't find one person who didn't like it."

Activities made the difference.

"There are so many things I want to learn how to do," she says. "I'd love to learn how to tap dance and line dance and learn how to play mah-jongg again. I want to join the Web TV club, the upstate New York club, the Maryland club. I want to take woodworking class and join the doll house club.

"My husband is an accountant. He wants to go into the investment club and work for Habitat for Humanity. He wants to start bridge again. We used to do that when we were young."

* * *

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Jim and Helen Dunlop, originally from South Africa, are frequent fixtures during nightly dancing on Town Square.
Behind the facade of the "Cattlemen's Association" building and up a flight of stairs are the Villages' corporate offices. Gary Morse stretches out in blue jeans and cowboy boots and remembers how it all started, back in the 1960s.

He and his father ran a mail order land sales operation out of Chicago. For $10 down and $10 a month, you, too, could own a slice of Florida paradise. Their property was in the rolling hills of Lake County, not the South Florida swampland that gave such sales a bad name. But they were still left holding a lot of land when a 1969 legislative crackdown ended mail order sales.

Cheap mobile homes were their salvation. Lower-income retirees were content to plunk down $25,000 for a home, a lot and a street that led to U.S. 27.

As retirees became more affluent, the mobile homes got bigger. Morse and his dad added a golf course and a clubhouse and called their community Orange Blossom Hills.

"The more we upgraded, the higher the market went. We were selling mobile homes for $125,000, and we realized we could build better homes ourselves."

By the mid-'80s, about 1,500 people lived in Orange Blossom Hills. Empty land beckoned from across the highway, and a radical idea took root: Instead of allowing random commerce to develop on the periphery, as Florida subdivisions had always done, the Morse family decided to build their own downtown.

Because they had no corporate shareholders to satisfy, they could invest first and worry about the people coming later. They could build a town that would fit their image of the way things ought to be.

"Our people were small town people. We wanted a town to remind them of their youth," Morse said. "We didn't think our people wanted to live in a new glass building type place."

The architects, a Canadian group that had worked on Universal Studios, needed a starting point. Give us a history, they said, tell us why this town came to be on this spot.

Over a bottle of scotch and a case of beer, the Morse family concocted the fanciful history of "Spanish Springs," a wild melange of Spanish soldiers, Indian attacks, epidemics, blacksmiths, saloonkeepers, brewers, citrus barons, hoteliers and shopkeepers.

Now, bronze plaques relate the "history" of individual buildings. An example:

"After the Civil War, with profits generated by supplying beef to the Confederacy, the Cattlemen's Association of Spanish Springs commissioned and built this gracious building in 1868 as a monument to their expanding empire. Originally the tallest commercial structure on Main Street. Fire in 1918 destroyed the decorative tower which once crowned this structure."

All of it fiction.

Charming to some, hokey to others, the town has become a magnet for the Villages' residents and people living in smaller retirement communities nearby.

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It's not really a door, just part of the old Southwest decor in "Spanish Springs.'' On the other side of the wall is the non-smoking bowling alley.
Restaurants with inexpensive, Middle America cuisine start filling up at 4:30, quickly spilling over to tables along the sidewalks. Out on the square, two black Ford pickups, replicas from the Capone era, function as open bars.

As a balmy evening sky turns soft blue and orange, the amplified stylings of Karen -- a bouncy, blond, country sort of gal -- echo from the band shell. "Pretty woman, walking down the street . . . "

Tanned line dancers swoop back and forth like blackbirds in winter. Spectators, three deep in green plastic lawn chairs, tap their feet, greet friends and sip two-for-one drinks from plastic cups.

Barbara Douglas, 63, a rare black face in the crowd, retired to Scottish Highlands, 10 miles down the road. She likes to visit the Villages for the nighttime entertainment, she says, but not to live. "There were too many people for me. You think you are living in Disney World."

Mondays and Thursdays are "festival nights," with dozens of vendors selling flea market-style goods from booths around the square. T-shirts. Magnets. Belts and ties. Jewelry. Porcelain collectibles. Golf cart flags.

For $1, Bubba Hodge and his horse, Luke, will give you a 10-minute carriage ride around town.

Orlando vendor Mike Barnaby loves the Villages. Every week, he sells a mishmash of American Indian crafts, toy cars, hand puppets and other gifts. Villages buyers pay full price and don't shoplift, he says. Children and grandchildren, down for visits, have lots of vacation money to spend.

"Most of the people are happy. There's live entertainment, lots of booze, lots of dancing. These people never rest."

* * *

Twenty years ago, Florida retirement enclaves hugged urban areas along the coast. With price often the controlling factor, high-rise developments like Century Village in Deerfield Beach and On Top of the World in Clearwater massed a lot of people in one place. The $40,000 condo ruled.

Today's retirees are more affluent. They prefer single-family homes, builders say, often with extra space for home offices. They want modern amenities, like the Villages' snazzy new fitness and rehab center, and open spaces for jogging, biking and inline skating.

To spread out and not up, developers need the cheap land and cheap taxes that rural Florida offers.

With $275-million in annual sales, the Villages has already caught this wave and is well-positioned for the future. The company controls enough land for 50,000 residents. Though a tiny villa sells for as little as $63,000, the average home sells for $156,000 and is getting bigger every year. The average buyer is 61 years old, just seven years removed from the baby boom's leading edge.

Some pundits suggest that baby boomers will reject 55+

communities like the Villages and instead seek out cities with yeasty, diverse neighborhoods. They'll walk or use mass transit to satisfy wide-ranging cultural and commercial interests.

University of Florida gerontologist Stephen Golant disagrees.

Certainly, some boomers will seek out inner-city life, but age-segregated enclaves will dominate Florida's retirement landscape, he wrote recently in Aging Today. Boomers "will be the most residentially segregated group of seniors ever witnessed by our society."

Aging boomers will see themselves as powerful and confident and will take pride in their segregated communities, Golant says. If a development can foster a small town feel, so much the better.

"The utopian dream of American culture is to go back to the small town, with its folksy relationships and face-to-face relationships," Golant says. "In many ways, the retirement community represents a version of that."

The Villages has that formula down. To keep their customers happy, the management team of Morse, his son, two daughters and a son-in-law meet every Wednesday morning to figure out what to do next.

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Visiting New Yorkers Bill and Lou Irland take a break in front of Katie Belle's dance hall and restaurant. The green plastic lawn chairs will be three deep once the music starts and Town Square happy hour, with two-for-one drinks, gets cranking.
They are guided, in part, by a 20-page survey that residents fill out every year, rating everything from neighborhood watch patrols to the comics in the Daily Sun to the quality of service at every Villages restaurant, bowling alley and golf course. If any facility drops in popularity, its manager must appear on the Villages' cable news network and explain what improvements will be made.

Family ownership, rather than out-of-town corporate ownership, contributes to the Villages' small town mystique.

Streets and buildings are named after Morse family members. A mural in the Scarlett O'Hara ballroom depicts Southern plantation life, including a Tara-like "Morse Mansion." When one daughter married a polo player from Barbados, the Villages built two polo fields and a grandstand.

"Find me a corporation that has some warmth," says Villages spokesman Gary Lester. The Morse family "lives here, their kids go to school here, they go to the theater here, they're in the drama club. They are part of the fabric of the community."

A family touch is fine and dandy, but it's flawless marketing that drives the Villages' success, says Rose, the home building consultant.

A Web site (http://www.thevillages.com/home/home.html) invites retiring couples to stay three nights at La Hacienda Hotel for $150. The package includes $150 in "Villages dollars," which the couple can spend on golf courses or in restaurants.

Seven red and green buses, designed to look like old trolley cars, offer free tours of the community, with commentary by residents who work part time as guides. "We have three community centers and last year had acts like Tommy Dorsey, Glen Campbell and Tammy Wynette," Carol Nelson says in her tour bus spiel.

Of the 24,000 people who took trolley tours last year, about one in eight bought homes.

Can't make it to Florida? The Villages mailed out 125,000 free promotional videos last year.

"It's a marketing machine," says Rose. "A lot of people in Florida don't know anything about the Villages, but everybody in Chicago has heard about them."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

One hour, so many choices

How can you just sit there like some old couch potato? It's after dinner on a Thursday evening, coming up on 7 p.m. Here's what's going on at the Villages, just in the next hour:

  • At the La Hacienda Center, the Central New York Club meets (the Julio Iglesias room), as does the Italian/American Club (the Carmen Miranda Room)
  • Toastmasters meets in the Tierra Del Sol Center, and the Republican Club of Sumter County meets in the Scarlett O'Hara Room at the Savannah Center.
  • All those are indoors. Outside there is more:
  • Tennis? There is open play on the courts at the Paradise Center, the La Hacienda Center, the Silverlake Center, the Chula Vista Center, the Tierra Del Sol Center and the El Santiago Center.
  • Billiards? There is Mixed 8 Ball League at the Jackie Gleason Billiards Parlor in the Paradise Center and open play at the Hustlers Billiard Parlor at La Hacienda.
  • Softball? Ladies' practice just ended at the John Knudson field at Paradise Center. There is open play at the Saddlebrook Softball Complex at El Santiago.
  • Pickleball? There is open play at La Hacienda, Chula Vista and El Santiago. (Don't know what pickleball is? Come out and try it.)
  • Swimming? All nine pools are open. Four have open swimming for adults only, three have open swimming for families. The Sports Pool at La Hacienda has coed water volleyball, and the Sports Pool at Savannah has coed water exercise.

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