April 12, 2024
Endless Horizon
The Villages has 54 golf courses, more than 90 miles of golf cart paths and about 75,000 golf carts - one for every two residents.

Photo: Klara Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Wildwood City Manager Jason McHugh says the city was "a rural railroad town" with few opportunities before The Villages came along. The city's population has doubled since 2020 and it's awash in tax revenue.

Photo: Klara Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Pickleball is a popular pastime in The Villages. The development also has more than 200 bocce courts, more than 15 dozen shuffleboard courts and 3,500-plus social clubs.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Daily water usage in The Villages in 2020 was 29.8 million gallons.

Photo: Klara Fletcher

Endless Horizon
The median home price for a single-family home in The Villages metropolitan statistical area was $385,500 in November 2023 - up 9.2% from the year before, according to Florida Realtors.

Photo: Klara Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Golf carts are a common mode of transportation in The Villages.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Brownwood Paddock Square is one of three town centers that host live entertainment and offer an array of shops and restaurants.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Spanish Springs, the first mixed-use town center in The Villages, opened 30 years ago.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Middleton, a new development adjacent to The Villages, is designed to attract workers who can serve the retirement community.

Photo: Klara Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Like all things in The Villages, UF Health's freestanding ER across from Brownwood Paddock Square is golf cart accessible. The facility see about 80 patients a day.

Photo: Klara Fletcher

Endless Horizon
Carla VandeWeerd, the director of the UF Health Precision Health Research Center, says the retirement mecca is "an amazing petri dish" for studying elder health.

Photo: UF Health

The Villages

Endless Horizon

The Villages is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. How much larger will it get?

Michael Fechter | 2/12/2024

The Villages had 94,000 residents in 2010, and grew 65% over the next 12 years. If that pace continues, it will be home to 239,250 people by 2034.

Turn south at the Meggison Road roundabout in The Villages, past Sawgrass Grove and the Southern Oaks Championship Golf Course, and you will come to a place that, as much as a line between past and future can exist, captures the sprawling 55-plus master-planned community’s seemingly infinite growth.

It is the apex of the Southern Oaks Bridge, which opened late last summer with six lanes — four for cars and trucks and two for The Villages’ ubiquitous golf carts.

Cars and 18-wheelers on Florida Turnpike’s whoosh by underneath the span. To the north, hundreds of houses bordered by lush green fairways and immaculately maintained streets like Meggison Road look like they’ve been there for years. They haven’t. Sawgrass Grove opened in late 2022.

Turn 180 degrees to the south, however, and through the horizon you’ll see former cow pastures that have been cleared and flattened. The only things coming out of the ground are white PVC pipes on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of single-family home lots ready for The Villages’ latest new frontier.

Most of what you hear about The Villages involves lifestyle — the 54 golf courses that dot its neighborhoods; the intense political activism that has made it a required stop for Republican politicians from state office to the presidency; or the urban legends about hard-partying grandparents.

But developers of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area generally try to stay out of the news. Gary Lester, The Villages’ vice president of community relations, politely declined to comment for this story, but the company is known to speak through its newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun.

It’s there that they preview the homes, golf courses, clubhouses and retail/entertainment centers they plan to build. How much more will The Villages grow? Much, much more.

It “will almost double in size,” Villages Sales and Marketing Vice President Jennifer Parr testified during a 2021 civil trial the developer filed against real estate agents it accused of pilfering confidential and proprietary information, when The Villages’ population was 135,000.

This much is known: The Villages is home to about 145,000 people today, including about 12,000 seasonal residents. And The Villages Development Company and the Buffalo Hide and Cattle Company — both controlled by the Morse family and led by CEO Mark Morse— own tens of thousands of undeveloped acres in Sumter and Lake Counties, much of it in the city of Wildwood.

Wildwood, which sits just east of where the Turnpike meets I-75, had a population of just 6,709 in 2010, Census records show. That more than doubled in the next decade to 15,740 and it has doubled again since 2020. By 2050, Wildwood could be home to 120,000 people, says City Manager Jason McHugh. While that’s not all new Villages residents, all the new residents will be there because of The Villages.

The Villages spans 57 square miles. That’s bigger than Ocala and roughly equivalent to West Palm Beach, which had 117,000 residents in 2020.

The country’s highest-selling master-planned community already stretches from southern Marion County deep into Sumter County and the western end of Lake County. From its northern-most point, it can be a 40-minute drive to reach the new developments of Cason Hammock and Fenney.

The portfolio continues to grow.

Last March, Buffalo Hide and Cattle bought 900 acres in Lake County, north of Mascotte, for $7 million. It bought another tract — 3,200 acres in Leesburg, south of Florida’s Turnpike along County Road 48 — in late August that used to be touted as “Secret Promise.” Villages Executive Vice President for Operations Kelsea Manly, daughter of CEO Mark Morse, told the Daily Sun that residents should “expect to see more beautiful neighborhoods, more world-class amenities, more of all the things that draw people to make The Villages their home.”

Late last year, The Villages submitted plans to Leesburg officials that could add as many as 6,500 new residences.

Welcoming the Boom

Sumter and Lake were among the state’s fastest-growing counties from 2010 to 2020, with Sumter growing 51% and Lake County growing 24%. Projections from the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research see Sumter growing by another 67%, to 235,718 by 2050, and Lake County growing 45% to 585,536.

This growth was unimaginable to Villages founder Harold Schwartz. He owned Orange Blossom Gardens, a mobile home park in Lady Lake that had about 300 single-wide trailers, one recreation center that doubled as a laundromat, a pool and one golf course during the 1970s.

“And the greens were irrigated,” Parr testified, “but we finally referred to it as the cow pasture course. So it was really run down.”

Schwartz’s son, and Parr’s father, H. Gary Morse, moved to Florida in 1983, bringing marketing and advertising expertise with him. The Morse family had run a business in a tourist area in northern Michigan called Brownwood that featured shopping, dining and entertainment, Parr said.

In 1991, Orange Blossom became The Villages, and the family borrowed heavily from Brownwood’s template. Town centers, including one named Brownwood, run throughout the development. They offer shops, restaurants and often feature live entertainment.

While the concept of a 55-plus golf mecca took off, Gary Morse planned to stop at State Road 44, which runs north of Florida’s Turnpike through Leesburg, near Lake Okahumpka, and into Wildwood. His pledge for The Villages to have a stopping point was a factor when Sumter County officials were considering future plans. But that changed around 2015, with the eager support of Sumter County officials. Because it “is a significant economic engine for Sumter County …” a resolution passed by the County Commission “dismisses any and all previous statements of The Villages Community limiting growth to the north side of State Road 44.”

The economy was still struggling to emerge from the 2008 recession, says Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold. Landowners weren’t interested in building or couldn’t get loans.

“During a recession,” he says, “you look around and say, ‘Who really has cash to continue to do vertical construction?’ In our area, The Villages was pretty much it.”

It has paid off for the county, he says, bringing more industrial jobs in addition to fattening the ad valorem tax base.

Mark Morse, Parr and their sister Tracy Mathews each received a third of the company from their father in 2006 and are billionaires, according to Forbes and Bloomberg estimates. Forbes valued the family wealth at $1.5 billion in 2015, while Bloomberg reported that each of Morse’s children was worth $1 billion in 2018. Their portfolio has grown dramatically since then. Gary Morse died in 2014 at the age of 77.

The Villages had 94,000 residents in 2010, growing 65% over the next 12 years. If that pace continues, it will be home to 239,250 people by 2034. The U.S. Census Bureau declared The Villages the fastest-growing U.S. metro area between 2021 and 2022, with its population increasing by 7.5%.

Not surprisingly, The Villages’ gross domestic product tripled from $1.8 billion in 2010 to $5.5 billion in 2021, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show.

Some of that economic activity is reflected in The Villages’ 15 community development districts (CDDs). The total budget rose from $400 million in 2021 to $611 million this year. That covers everything from The Villages fire department to maintenance at its clubhouses and golf courses.

Before new building begins, the CDDs also can issue tax-free bonds to finance infrastructure — everything from water and sewer lines and street lights to golf courses and recreation centers. The recreational amenities often are ready to open even before the houses are built.

On the south side of the Southern Oaks Bridge, for example, rights of way and intersections leading to open land already are landscaped with bright perennials, and fairways look ready to serve residents whose homes haven’t had slabs poured.

But they will be soon. Constant, concentrated growth creates opportunities for efficiencies, says Sumter County Commissioner Don Wiley, who moved with his wife to The Villages a decade ago and posts YouTube videos using his drone to track the latest developments.

Construction goes faster because trades workers have much less “windshield time” driving from jobsite to jobsite. Where most homes can take around nine months to be built, new Villages houses are ready within three months, Wiley says.

That’s a pretty good estimate, says Leesburg City Manager Al Minner. Villages housing within his city generates 250 certificates of occupancy per month.

“And it’s not because they’re taking shortcuts,” Wiley says. “It’s because everything is rigidly scheduled.”

Before being appointed to the commission by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2021, Wiley spent about seven years on one of the CDD boards. He became adept at following the paper trail with local governments, often announcing new developments in his YouTube videos before Villages marketers.

“These guys keep secrets better than the CIA,” he says. “Eventually they have to do some public filings, and that’s where I come in.”

On top of his county commission work, Wiley, a retired Navy nuclear submarine reactor operator and former construction manager, plays golf once a week, leads a drone operators club and runs Gold Wingnut Productions, a business that photographs home construction updates for outof- state buyers.

There are more than 3,500 clubs in The Villages, he notes, as well as daily exercise and art classes. “If you’re bored here,” he says, “it’s your fault.” Ask him about the busy schedule he and other Villagers maintain, and he quotes Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”

His videos routinely draw more than 20,000 views and, occasionally, resentment from Villages officials. CEO Mark Morse seemed to be speaking about Wiley last spring during a town hall posted on The Villages News Network’s YouTube channel when he complained about getting scooped on his own development plans. “I mean, there’s drones flying all over this place,” he said. “Have you seen them?”

The changes brought on by explosive growth in the region are notable, but not everyone is as enamored of them.

Gay Ann Light, 77, has spent the last 25 years living about six miles west of The Villages on land that has been in her husband’s family for three generations. The growth has brought some conveniences — more stores and more doctors — she acknowledges, but she laments the loss of open land that she describes as “beautiful,” adding, “This is progress that breaks my heart because I have seen Florida since the day I was born.”

“The Villages is like a cancer. They’re spreading and spreading and spreading,” she says.

“They haven’t been brought up with the Southern way of life. Respect your neighbor,” she adds. “They’re very condescending. They think we’re a bunch of backwoods people that don’t have a clue.”

Wiley, who hears some of these complaints as a Sumter County commissioner, understands the desire to preserve the rural way of life. But market forces will carry the day.

“Unfortunately, their neighbors are selling the land,” he says. “The Villages is a developer. This is going to continue on as long as people continue to retire.”

Where the Workforce Lives

One of the newest construction projects within The Villages technically is not a part of The Villages. Middleton is a 2,500-acre subdivision dedicated to workforce housing that opened last spring. In August, buildings and athletic fields for The Villages charter schools opened and a town center is under construction.

Middleton offers another sense of The Villages’ vast expanse. Remember that the community reaches into southern Marion County, not far from the I-75 exit for the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. And the charter high school’s football field at the south end of The Villages sits a half-mile south of the entrance to the Coleman federal penitentiary just north of County Road 470. The prison complex is one of the region’s largest employers and is considered the largest complex in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, covering about 1,600 acres.

The charter school opened 20 years ago at The Villages’ northern end. The family recognized “we needed to attract high quality folks,” Mark Morse said last May during the town hall with The Villages residents. “And the types of folks we wanted to attract were going to be the types of people who were concerned about their children’s education.”

That includes teachers, firefighters and service employees. More than 1,000 people work in golf operations.

Middleton aims to let people live “very close to their job and increase the level of service in the community. So it’s near The Villages to serve The Villages,” Morse said.

But it is not The Villages. Middleton residents can enjoy all the public spaces, Morse said, but not the amenities, such as the recreation centers and golf courses.

Middleton is part of the 26,000 acres The Villages owns in Wildwood, with 18,700 acres still undeveloped. The city’s 2050 comprehensive plan says The Villages could add as many as 60,449 more housing units.

For Jason McHugh, the Wildwood city manager, The Villages’ exponential growth spells opportunity. Wildwood previously was “a kind of rural railroad town with not a lot of opportunities, not a lot of economic growth. A lot of the folks that lived here had to leave for jobs and there wasn’t any opportunity,” he says.

Now, Wildwood is a city “that is able to really improve the lives of our residents based on the economic inflow of cash and ad valorem taxes and other things that have come as a result of The Villages,” he says. He is working on revitalizing the city’s downtown and improving its parks, all while cutting the millage rate 25%.

Sumter County’s change isn’t quite as dramatic, but it may be more diverse economically. The Villages continued expansion helped lure manufacturing jobs and the development of the 424- acre Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park off US 301 southwest of Coleman. The Villages Daily Sun opened a printing press there and MiCo Customs cabinets opened a manufacturing center.

“They’re becoming a magnet for more manufacturing and warehouse distribution and even trucking companies to locate here in Sumter County,” Arnold says.

Healthy Living

An ever-expanding population, especially in a 55-plus community, means ever expanding health care needs. The Villages has one hospital, a 307-bed facility which opened in 2002 and was bought out by UF Health in 2020. But it is a half-hour ride for many southern Villagers to get there. Plans for a second hospital near a new Wellness Village that were announced in 2020 and touted as recently as 2022 seem to be on hold.

“Those conversations are in process right now,” says Heather Long, CEO of UF Health Central Florida. UF Health has added 50 new inpatient beds to its Leesburg hospital, which is only about 15 minutes from Middleton.

UF’s Villages hospital opened an $18-million, 26,000-sq.-ft. heart and vascular center last spring and the pulmonary rehabilitation center has doubled its size with all new equipment.

A freestanding emergency room opened in 2020 north of State Road 44 in the Brownwood community. Like all things Villages, it is golf cart-accessible. The ER sees about 80 patients per day, Long says, which is more than double the cases when it opened. An additional dozen beds are being added, bringing the total at the ER to 28.

The cases range from respiratory illnesses to sports injuries. “We have golf cart accidents, we have pickleball injuries and tennis injuries and we have lots of golf injuries,” she says, including people getting hit by a ball. “It can knock you out pretty quick.”

In addition, The Villages Health system offers seven primary care centers.

This fall, a fire rescue unit will become the second in Florida equipped with Tissue Plasminogen Activator, an intravenously administered treatment that dissolves the clots that cause strokes and helps limit brain damage by restoring blood flow.

More stand-alone facilities are likely, Long says. The goal is to keep Villagers as active as they want to be. “They’re supposed to be having fun and we’re there to catch them if they fall.”

And that may be the reason The Villages can keep building, confident that the myriad activities available to residents each day will continue to lure people from throughout the country.

In a May town hall meeting, Villages CEO Mark Morse likened it to going off to college — for older people.

“You get to start anew,” he said. “And that’s what The Villages is all about. So that activity and that social connectivity and that energy is a blessing for health.”

Villages resident and Sumter County Commissioner Don Wiley, who tracks new development literally like a hawk — using his drones to scope out the work being done — agrees. “The community sells itself. People are going to continue to retire. They’re going to want to move away from the high-tax areas. Who the heck wants to shovel snow? I’d rather shovel sunshine.”

Study Subjects

As an undergraduate at McMaster University in Ottawa, Canada, Carla VandeWeerd found her life’s calling while volunteering for a Canadian National Institute for the Blind project visiting older adults in their homes.

“It seemed to me that a population who had already given so much was not necessarily front and center as they retired and transitioned into late life,” she says. “At that point, I really became quite interested in how we might be able to improve health and wellness for this segment of the population and try to make sure that people have the best quality of life in the last chapter of their life.”

Now VandeWeerd directs the UF Health Precision Health Research Center in The Villages, where she has spent 12 years researching elder health. It’s fertile territory because residents come from throughout the country and many are willing to participate in research projects.

“The Villages is really an amazing petri dish, but we also need to be extremely respectful of the fact that this is a home for people,” she says. “People come here to live. They’re not coming here to sort of be lab rats … They have better things to do. So we really want to make sure that we’re very respectful about the donation of their time and their willingness to participate, and we’re bringing them things that really are worthwhile and impactful.”

While pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, VandeWeerd volunteered to work on a survey of Villages residents that won an Erickson Foundation Research Award for Excellence in Aging Research from the American Public Health Association. Respondents made it clear that cognitive decline was among their biggest concerns.

Risk factors for cognitive decline include hearing loss — which can limit social engagement — sleep habits, diet and exercise. The Villages offers residents a wide menu of activities to keep people sharp.

“When we say active lifestyle, that doesn’t mean you’re waking up in the morning and you’re running a 10K,” she says. “Active lifestyle means that you’re waking up in the morning, and you are doing things that are meaningful for you. And that might be reading your book on your back patio. That might be spending 15 minutes by the pool in your neighborhood engaging with your fellow neighbors and talking about your day.”

VandeWeerd is equally excited watching the center’s younger staffers who may have had a perception about late life that was more sedentary. It helps “us all rethink what the standard should be, what the minimum expectation should be for great health and quality of life downstream,” she says.

The Villages by the Numbers

Number of homes: 71,000

Number of villages: 104

Number of golf courses: 57 (44 executive and 13 championship)

Pickleball courts: 241

Astronomy pads: 1

Sources: The Villages Community Development Districts; 2023 Evening with The Developer; The Villages Astronomy Club

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