There is no community in the United States more successful than The Villages near Ocala, Fla. There also is no other community that so solidly nails the needs and desires of a large segment of active adult home buyers or evokes as much passion among its residents.
Consider the evidence:
-The Villages consistently ranks as the top selling master plan in the country by Metrostudy, a sister company of BUILDER. By mid-2013 the development startedhomes at a pace of 3,525 a year, up 31 percent versus the previous year.
-At the peak of the market, The Villages sold more than 4,000 homes a year and Metrostudy expects it to approach that number in 2014, forecasting 3,944 new-home sales.
-It delivered 1,500 lots in the 12 months ended in June, more than any other master plan, accounting for 45 percent of all annual lot deliveries in central Florida.
-Metrostudy ranks The Villages as the healthiest of the largest 100 markets and projects the samefor 2014.
-No other builder/developer constructs more homes in one place than The Villages, which is the largest single-site development in the U.S. More than 85,000 people live there, according to the company’s website and it’s expected to reach 100,000 at build-out.
Formula for Success
The Villages developer, Gary Morse, who famously avoids talking to journalists other than to issue “no comments,” has had a long time to get the formula right. The development began in 1972 as a mobile home park called Orange Blossom Gardens, founded by Morse’s father, Michigan native Harold Schwartz. By 1983, Schwartz needed help and asked Morse to joinhim. It was Morse, who has a marketing background, who figured out how to draw retirees in droves to the remote pastureland. Over time Morse’s three children left Michigan to work there.
Morse switched the development from mobile homes to stick-built houses, and enticed seniorsby offering an overload of amenities and activities, and the promise of perpetual fun in the sun for a reasonable price. He started with golf courses, advertising “free golf for life,” and then organized the neighborhoods around town squares where people could dance every evening during two-for-one happy hours. The town centers feature small-town scaled streets filled with shops and restaurants.
Every “village” also has arecreation center with calendars full of activities. There are well over a thousand weekly activities in “Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Hometown,” according to its website.
CDDs Make it Possible
Growing the development into three town centers, all with amenities and elaborate infrastructure would have been difficult for a single developer to achieve without access to Community Development District financing. In Florida developers are allowed to create special purpose districts that sell bonds to pay for streets, utilities, and amenities, anduture home owners repay the bonds over time. Many CDDs in Florida defaulted during the housing downturn, but not at The Villages. (Nevertheless, Morse, who is described as a billionaire by Bloomberg News, was under scrutiny by the IRS for town center districts where no residents live.)
The Villages is in its final stage of development, but there is no indication that the developer plans to move on. Morse lives in the middle of the community, not far from its polo grounds, and his children and grandchildrenwork there.
“My family has dedicated our lives to build a retirement community where dreams come true,” says Morse’s daughter, Jennifer Parr, director of sales, in an online video. “The Villages and my family plan to be here for a long time. As much as it has taken to create the community, it will take more to manage it.”
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER magazine.