Monday, December 26, 2011

The Villages: A New Way to Retire

by Conroy

I looked out through the large bus windows at the rolling central Florida hills. The late morning sunlight was muted by the tinted glass, and the countryside appeared as a contrast of straw-colored grass and subtropical evergreen. It had been a drought-stricken winter, the end of the dry season, and even the dark murky lakes and ponds that dotted the landscape looked drained and shrunken. The bus was heading north from Orlando on the Florida Turnpike. In years past this ground was cultivated with orange groves, but too frequent winter frosts and freezes drove the orange growers south. Now ranching dominates and open, empty fields carry on along the rolling ground as far as the eye can follow . This part of the Sunshine State seems far removed from the palm-laden glitz and built-up densities of Miami and “South Florida,” or certainly the sprawling fantasy production of Disney World and the rest of Orlando’s tourist-entertainment parks. But it’s in this quiet corner of Florida where you will find one of the fastest growing communities in the United States, The Villages. That’s where my charter bus, one of many on the daily round-trip shuttle service to and from Orlando, was taking me.

The Villages is the brainchild of developer H. Gary Morse, who in the mid-1980s saw an opportunity to transform a struggling trailer park into a vast new development. Florida has long been famous as a Mecca for retirees, the “snowbirds” looking to escape the frigid winters of the Northeast and Midwest, and Morse carried this reality to a new conclusion: He wouldn’t build a retirement center, or neighborhood, but an entire town. Large tracks of northeast Sumter County (and smaller portions of adjacent Marion and Lake Counties) were bought, and over the last two plus decades, transformed into a new, wildly successful community. The population of The Villages, including part-time residents, is over 80,000 with a planned ultimate population of more than 100,000. With vast numbers of baby-boomers starting to retire, the U.S. might see a proliferation in these types of master-planned retirement towns, and I wanted to get a firsthand look at this potential future.

Entering The Villages
My bus, which I was glad was well less than half full, exited the Turnpike onto US 301. There followed a slow ten minute ride, which went through the sad-looking town of Wildwood. We passed tiny dilapidated bungalows, tired storefronts, and that general haphazard, disorderly look of neglected landscaping and forgotten maintenance. The impression is unmistakably one of the languishing rural South. What a contrast when a few minutes later and couple miles down the road we turned onto Buena Vista Boulevard and entered The Villages. We passed thousands of trim bright new houses. The white and cream facades accented with a mix of shingled gray, brown, and burnt orange roofs. Many houses feature patios and pools (all enclosed by lanai). We drove past several bright green golf courses; there are nearly 40 in the town all told, including nine 18- or 27-hole country club courses. There was also the exquisitely manicured landscaping: Large oak trees adorned with Spanish moss; palmettos lining golf courses; bushes shielding roadside houses; blooming flowers of pink, red, yellow, violet, and indigo brightening the roadside; and the thick, uniformly trimmed and edged carpet of grass. It was all wonderfully arranged and effectively used to delineate neighborhoods and break-up the views. Intersections occurred at roundabouts, not a traffic signal to be seen. Buena Vista Boulevard, like all major roads in The Villages, is flanked by paved cart paths. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the town is the ubiquitous use of golf carts to get around – everywhere a resident would want to go – and today, Saturday, the carts were out in force.

Lake Sumter Landing
The bus stopped in Lake Sumter Landing, one of two town centers, which features several streets of pastel colored shops and restaurants radiating from a central square. I stepped off the bus into the sunny warm April day and was greeted by my hosts – my parents, part-time residents. The architecture and layout is all set-up following that Florida specialty, the theme, this being the Old South (e.g. a wooden bridge over a small canal, complete with a fake lock and waterwheel). The adjacent square (surrounded by buildings with a southern town façade) was busy as residents and their guests (like me) surveyed the offerings of local vendors; art and personal accessories mostly, and a regular daytime activity. The north side of the square is open and leads to Lake Sumter, right in the center of The Villages. The lake is fronted by houses on either side of the town center. This is apparently some of the choicest and priciest real estate in the whole town.

We walked to a close-by restaurant for lunch and the sidewalks and stores were no less busy. I was somewhat surprised by the composition of the crowds. While there was a surfeit of older people, there were also a lot of families. I had in mind a scene of senescent retirees, slow moving, quiescent. But the hustle I encountered was just like your local outdoor mall, not the exhausted idleness of a retirement home. I was skeptical when my parents told me they were buying a house in The Villages. I feared they were adopting a mentality and lifestyle older than their years. But on first exposure, my fears were somewhat allayed. There was vibrancy here, not certainly for a young person, but at least I could sense the appeal.



After lunch, I got a tour (the first of many) of my parents’ neighborhood and nearby facilities. The Villages is so labeled because it’s subdivided into “villages.” Lynnhaven, Ashland, Largo, Hadley, Palo Alto, and Alhambra to name a handful (there’s over 60). A visitor can access the town centers and drive the major boulevards, but each neighborhood is gated. The Villages is inviting, but not open. In general each village includes several streets laid out in curvilinear alignments (and with dedicated cart lanes), with closely-spaced houses. Palm trees predominate, with palmettos, queen palms, and date trees in abundance. No doubt these trees are heavily planted because they’re attractive, but also to remind residents and visitors that The Villages is a place of warmth and winter-free living. Ironically, the previous February was abnormally cold and the fronds of many of the less hardy trees were brown, damaged by repeated exposure to freezing temperatures. Central Florida is usually mild in winter, but cold does happen.

A Very Brief Overview
Gold carts parked en mass a Spanish Springs
But to give you a birds-eye overview, geographically The Villages resembles a large rectangle,  with boundaries roughly delineated by state route (SR) 42 on the north, SR 466A on the south, US 301 on the west, and US 27 on the east. In total, an area of roughly 35 square miles (not much smaller than San Francisco). There are two town centers, Lake Sumter Landing, near the geographic center, and Spanish Springs (Spanish-America themed) near the northwest corner. Then there are numerous regional centers (also variously themed – nautical, tropical, etc.) that include large theaters/halls, meeting rooms, small gyms, business centers, etc. In each village there are neighborhood recreational centers, with family pools, tennis courts, meeting rooms, and so on. Finally, there are neighborhood pools (heated for year-round use), which also feature bocce ball pitches and shuffle board. By my observation the pools were heavily-used, but surprisingly no one was playing bocce ball or shuffle board, which didn’t jive with my thinking of what these old people would prefer. There’s also the aforementioned abundance of golf courses, as well as parks, softball complexes, a polo stadium and equestrian facilities, an archery range, a croquet and lawn bowling center, and walking trails. There are several lakes, but there are largely off limits because they’re swampy like in the rest of Florida and infested with alligators, some of which are apparently man-endangeringly large.

As I was shown one of the regional recreation centers, I picked up a weekly newspaper that included a listing of all activities. In addition to shows and other weekly and specialty entertainment featured in the regional centers, there are a lot of ways to keep busy, pages and pages and pages worth. There are clubs or groups for a tremendous range of interests. A small sampling: languages, political interests, cycling, model sailboat racing, books, tennis, ethnic/cultural affinities, food, movies, line dancing, etc., ad seemingly infinitum. If you have an interest in something, you can probably find a group or club. It’s all centered on leisure. People who live in The Villages don’t get up and go to work, so their time has to be filled in other ways. I’ve heard retirees claim that finding ways to spend their newly free time is a challenge. If you're a joiner (and we all aren't joiners, my mom is much more of one than my dad), filling time at The Villages is easy.

Lake Sumter Landing along Lake Sumter
We went back to Lake Sumter Landing in the evening. The sun was setting, but it was still balmy and the crowd was still large. Hundreds of golf carts were parked along the streets (golf carts are given preferential standing vis-à-vis cars). Music was emanating from the square. Hundreds of people were sitting in comfortable-looking wooden folding chairs along the perimeter of the square. Apparently, these are setup every night for live music. On this night we only lingered for a few minutes, the music (a light jazz ensemble) was not to my taste, plus we were hungry. But on other nights apparently the bands or DJs are able to stir the crowd into a frenzy including embarrassing/comical/out-of-step mass line dances, of which my mother is a frequent happy participant.

Criticisms
So is everything about The Villages a great plus? Well there have been criticisms of the political structure. The Villages is largely controlled by the group H. Gary Morse led, and residents have little say in current or future development. Further, there are stringent rules in place to ensure the clean, uniform, attractive look of the houses and public spaces. Residents cannot do what they please with their houses, although to a greater or lesser extent, that’s true in most places. Overall, the average resident may have less say in the working of The Villages than may be desired, but is this a major concern? I had a chance to speak with several residents, my parents included, and none raised the issue of how The Villages were run, how services were provided, what amenities were available. Things aren’t necessarily cheap, but an advantage of being located in a rural section of Florida is fairly low housing costs, which offset homeowner’s fees.

However, a retirement community populated with thousands of aging adults needs extensive health care services, especially nursing care. These services are available in The Villages, but they are not cheap, forcing many residents to search for options in nearby towns. A friend of my parents had to do just that, finding a nursing home for her ailing husband. This offsite care might be cheaper, but it’s also of varying quality.

But The Villages is also good for the overall local economy. Local residents, many of them younger adults, staff the stores and restaurants, and carryout the maintenance, landscaping, and other routine services. The Villages are ringed by strip malls, most accessible by specially built golf cart tunnels and bridges. It’s doubtful these would exist without The Villages. Local merchants benefit from providing all the things people need: banks, medical services, auto-repair, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Might all of this part of Florida look like Wildwood, absent the money being pumped into the economy because of The Villages? I doubt you’ll find too many locals decrying the influx of these retirees. A fringe benefit of working in The Villages is free access for employee children to The Villages K-12 school, which from the outside looks like an exclusive and expensive boarding school, including A+ sports facilities. I can’t speak to the quality of the education.

A State of Mind
The Villages is an oasis for retirees, both in its physical reality as a beautiful, maintained, and amenity-laden town, and as a state-of-mind. As I look through the eyes of my parents, I understand the appeal. Retirement is a time to enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. But it’s also, unfortunately, a bit of a race. When we get older we only have so much time, of health, of mobility, of mental energy, and let’s face it, of life.  That time must be valued and for certain people, a lot of people, the lifestyle offered at The Villages is the way to do that. The nature of retirement might change in the coming years (retirement age, government benefits, etc.), but hopefully a longer-living and healthier population will get to enjoy retirement. I can see that’s what’s happening in The Villages, and perhaps as demography suggests, what will happen in other similar places. The Villages is a new type of town, and it just might be the right model for future projects.

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