The Fastest-Growing Metro Area is For Seniors

How a landlocked swampland in Florida became an amenity-rich development that fosters independent living.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

At 65, Herb Blank, from Connecticut by way of the Bronx and Queens in New York, feels like he’s sunk a hole in one by moving to The Villages: A newcomer to the sport, he now plays golf three times weekly, and while gasoline prices rise, he gets most places — in a community that spans three counties, three zip codes, and covers more than 20,000 acres — by golf cart.

“It’s a wonderful lifestyle, and another bonus just happened recently: with skyrocketing gasoline prices, why be in a gas guzzler that gets 25 to 30 miles to the gallon when you could get 75 mph in a golf cart with a lithium battery,’’ says Blank, who established the first family of ETFs to trade on the New York Stock Exchange. He is now a senior quantitative analyst at ValuEngine.

Blank and his wife, Joan, live in the development’s Bougainvillea model, a 1400-square foot house with three bedrooms and two baths, small front and back yards and a porch that’s known in parts South as a lanai.

The Blanks moved in in 2021, and were immediately welcomed to their new neighborhood by the 92-year-old widow next door. She arrived in The Villages 30 years ago when it had 15,000 residents; it now has 135,000 dwellers.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, The Villages has the fastest rising population in a metropolitan area in the U.S. Its population has increased by 40% since 2010, from 93,000 then to 130,000 in 2020. Blank says the place is “growing exponentially.’’

100 Miles of Golf-Cart Accessibility

The Villages is located in almost the dead center of the state, landlocked in swampland and lake country. What’s so great about a part of Florida that used to be the butt of jokes about its sinkholes and punishing humidity?

“Our neighbor Lorraine takes her golf cart to the Walmart, which is 15 miles away, using golf cart paths, multi-modal paths, tunnels and bridges that go over the highway. She never has to drive on the main roads,’’ says Blank.

Timing was on the Blanks’ side when they bought: They sold their condominium in Connecticut for $170,000 in 2021 and bought their home in Florida for $265,000, $25,000 under the original asking price when the sellers’ mortgage on the other end fell through and they needed cash quickly.

For their investment, the couple has access to a crowded menu of community activities beyond golf, over an area of 100 miles and all accessible by golf cart.

“A Self-Styled Theme Park for Seniors”

The sprawling development has three town centers with themes — one’s a re-creation of a 19th century cattle town, another has a Spanish motif and a third is a waterfront setting.

Each center has its own restaurants, post office, retail stores, movie and theater houses and ATMs, and one has a winery.

The Villages operates Villages News Network (VNN), a local cable network outlet, plus a radio station and a newspaper; The Villages Daily Sun.

“It’s a self-styled theme park for seniors: The Villages is well integrated into the entertainment mecca of central Florida,’’ writes historian Gary R. Mormino, who has taught at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg and contributes essays to the Tampa Bay Times.

“It follows the model similar to Sun City in Arizona and also drew inspiration from down the road: Walt Disney World,’’ he writes.

Residents, and visitors who are checking out the development can hear free nightly live entertainment at these town centers, where snacks and refreshments are served.

On top of that, there are 24 recreation centers spread out over the 20,000 acres, where monthly maintenance fees enable residents to access pools, billiard, bocce, tennis, fitness centers, pottery classes, archery, arts and crafts, plus biking, walking, hiking and rowing on artificial lagoons and nearby lakes.

“The Place Sells Itself”

Lynn Kieran, a Staten Island, N.Y. native who moved to Wall Township, N.J., 24 years ago, has a similar story to the Blanks. She had friends and relatives who visited The Villages, then they purchased homes, then she visited them, and then she bought.

Kieran, who retired from the airlines and for 33 years owned a little Irish Pub in Bradley Beach, N.J., the Sudsy Mug Saloon, didn’t stop there: She has bought and sold several houses in The Villages, and has rented one home for $4,000 a month.

“The place sells itself: it’s a great environment. I golf and I go to the live music shows. And the social life: There’s constantly get-togethers in the neighborhoods,’’ says Kieran, now in her 70s.

Free Golf and More

“You can golf for free on the executive courses if you’re a resident; they’re nine-hole courses. I compare this to Disney World in the way that there is so much to do,’’ she says.

The development has 12 18-hole courses and 38 nine-hole courses.

Beyond its own activities, the development’s proximity to other attractions, cities and the coasts within a two-hour drive is a draw: Walt Disney World (62 miles southeast); Tampa (86 miles southwest) the Gulf (55 miles west) and the Atlantic Ocean (77 miles east).

But Kieran needn’t leave the development for recreation.

“I’m in the Brooklyn Club, although I’m from Staten Island; the Jersey Club; the Straight Shooters gun club and the Irish Club,’’ Kieran says.

Among the dozens of clubs there is an Eisenhower Club, Kieran says.

“It’s all about veterans: they have wax figures of all the branches of all the military veterans; it is absolutely fantastic,’’ she says.

Putting Politics Aside

Blank says The Villages’ reputation for its residents being politically conservative is accurate but that one can avoid contentious exchanges.

“There’s a guy who gave me golf clubs who has a big sign on his cart that says ‘You miss me yet?’ with a picture of Trump. At least 85% here are Republican, but the Democrats live peacefully; they have the political savvy to not get involved in arguments.

“If that were my primary thing in life, I would have stayed in Connecticut. Let me put this in perspective: Once in a while, someone will bring this stuff up, right? My response is, ‘Wow, that’s very interesting — you think Biden has a chip in his head that’s controlled by Bill Gates! You never know,’ and then I’ll say, ‘I have a hitch in my backswing, could you help me?’ You don’t have to be political to live in this place,” Blank said.

The development has three Democratic clubs as well as a club called the Moderates Discussion Club.  It also has two clubs for Republicans.

According to the Sumter County Supervisor of Elections, where most of the Villages residents live, 67.76% of residents voted Republican in the 2020 election, and 31.68% voted Democratic.

Mail-Order Origins

Claims about cheap Florida parcels rescuing Northerners from long winters and high taxes owe something to Harold Schwartz, a Michigan businessman who began selling Sunshine State land tracts by mail order in the 1960s, until a 1968 federal law banned such deals.

Stuck with large tracts in central Florida’s Lake County, Schwartz and a business partner developed part of the land into a trailer park, Orange Blossom Gardens. But with business just limping along, Schwartz bought out his partner and brought in his son, H. Gary Morse in 1983.

Morse was an admirer of the age-restricted, amenity-laden retirement developments pioneered by Del Webb in the Sun Belt of Arizona. Following the Webb template, Schwartz and Morse upgraded the properties, added golf courses and expanded into nearby Sumter and Marion counties.

In 1992, Morse dubbed the development The Villages; it is still under control of the descendants of Schwartz and Morse.  Schwartz died in 2003; Morse died in 2014. His son, Mark Morse, is CEO of the development.

Historical Fiction

Amanda R. Brian, associate dean and associate professor of history at Coastal Carolina University, Conway, S.C. writes that Schwartz and H. Gary Morse papered over the tumultuous 18th and 19th centuries’ origins of the area — turf wars over land, cattle, timber, tobacco and cotton led by white Europeans which pushed out indigenous populations — by posting plaques with invented history at the development’s town centers. Ponce de Leon is extolled, and invented women pioneers are celebrated.

“The made-up plaques prevent The Villages’ real past from emerging; buried is the fierce colonization and settlement. It’s an illusory past that contains none of the conflict and little of the diversity, particularly the ethnic or racial diversity of the story,’’ Brian writes.

Brian writes that Schwartz “wanted to be beloved, like his influence, Walt Disney, rather than revered.

“This approach to the past is similar to Walt Disney’s approach: It’s Disney realism, sort of utopian in nature, carefully programming out all the negative, unwanted elements and programming in the positive elements — excising conflict to champion progress especially economic progress,’’ Brian writes.

A cemetery founded by Black slaves lies within the boundary lines of The Villages.

“The cemetery is used by the members of the Spark Level Missionary Baptist Church. The cemetery is connected to one of the earliest settlements in the region, a town founded by escaped slaves. The specter of death and the legacy of Black Americans is literally covered up,’’ Brian writes in “The Faux History of the Villages’’ in Southern Cultures magazine in 2014.

Additional Reading: Intergenerational Living Bests Retirement Communities 

Clearly, Schwartz and Morse understood that historical authenticity versus economic progress is an unequal fight.

Lower Maintenance and Taxes, But More Sinkholes

Blank is not surprised to hear projections show The Villages’ population growing to 150,000 by 2025.

“It’s growing for the same reason why I’m so happy here: For the most part, it’s safe and it’s built around a lifestyle that would be idyllic for most people,’’ Blank said.

“It gives you all the resources that you could want; it’s like one huge, spread-out golf course! It’s built for 55-plus people so people are comfortable with their peers because they have the same reference points. There are pools everywhere, golf courses everywhere, air-conditioned recreation centers everywhere, and food — there’s any kind of food you would want,’’ Blank says.

At their Connecticut condominium, the Blanks paid $400 a month for maintenance, landscaping and amenities; they pay $160 monthly at The Villages for the same package. He says a nearby development with less expensive housing charges $209 monthly for fewer perks. The Blanks’ property tax bill for last year was about $1,111.

And that accusation about sinkholes? Blank says it has merit.

“There are a lot. And there’s no insurance that covers it. If you have a sinkhole, it can submerge your driveway, or half of your house. The biggest problem is there is no insurance.

“There were three sinkholes at houses here and The Villages offered them good houses in another area, then tore the houses down and fortified the entire area,’’ Blank says.

Blank, Kieran and a steady influx of newcomers to The Villages can weather the occasional sinkhole or political spat for a mode of living that’s about as close to the idealized world of Disney as one could imagine.

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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