Most Villagers know a great deal about their individual neighborhoods and the people who live around them.
In fact, they’re probably quite familiar with their neighborhood recreation centers, places to buy groceries near their homes and the closet mini-mart that sells gas for their vehicles or golf carts.
But what many Villagers – especially newer residents – might not know about is the big-picture scope of the mega-retirement community they call home. Right now, it’s in full growth mode with no signs of slowing down for many years to come. And it covers somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 square miles, with the day coming down the road when that number will most likely jump to 70 square miles.
The Villages sits in three counties – Sumter, Lake and Marion. It is partly governed by Community Development Districts that are responsible for a variety of functions, including maintenance, recreation, public safety, sanitation, water and wastewater services. County and city commissions also play a role in governing the community, depending on where one lives. And law enforcement is provided by those county and city governments as well, which include Sumter County, Lake County, Marion County, Lady Lake, Fruitland Park, Wildwood and Leesburg.
The building boom that’s taking place is in the southernmost portion of the community in Sumter County. The original plan was to end The Villages at State Road 44. But when the Sumter County Commission asked the Developer to keep building homes to help drive the booming economy, the Morse family members talked it over and decided it was a good idea – despite a published quote many years ago from the late H. Gary Morse in his developer-owned newspaper promising that The Villages would never cross SR 44.
But not only has the community crossed that thoroughfare, it’s also on the other side of the Florida Turnpike. It started in the new section with the Village of Fenney, then moved into the Villages of Southern Oaks, which includes many different neighborhoods. And there are plans to build golf cart bridges across the turnpike and SR 44 to connect the newest neighborhoods to the existing villages.
The new section contains many different things besides homes. There’s The Villages Grown project, where vegetables grown in greenhouses using hydroponic methods will be provided to restaurants, food stores and retail customers. A new Villages Public Safety Fire Station is being built. And like everywhere else in The Villages, golf courses are coming to life ever so quickly in the new areas.
All told, the Wildwood City Commission has given its blessings for up to 49,339 homes to be built in the Southern Oaks area, along with up to 11.2 million square feet of non-residential uses, such as commercial, and up to 1.4 million square feet of government or office space.
The Developer also purchased land in Leesburg near the turnpike that can hold up to 2,800 homes. So if all of those homes eventually are built – condominiums and apartments are allowed in Southern Oaks – The Villages would nearly double in size.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for many longtime residents who moved to the community when it was much smaller. Many remember the days when the community stopped at County 466 and then at 466A. But as the years have gone on, fewer and fewer remember when it stopped at U.S. Hwy. 27/441.
For those who aren’t aware of the history of the sprawling community, it was founded by Harold Schwartz, a savvy businessman who had been into everything from mail-order merchandise to owning radio stations across the border in Mexico to developing property in New Mexico to mail-order land sales. The man loved by so many old-time Villagers did it all. And he’s also the guy who discovered Wolfman Jack – the most famous disc jockey in history.
In 1983, Schwartz acquired the original Orange Blossom Gardens – a small trailer park in the middle of nowhere in Central Florida – after a disagreement with his partner about the future of the community. He then brought his son, H. Gary Morse, in to manage OBG and its 386 mobile homes. And together, the duo started making improvements, like adding swimming pools and golf courses, that would propel the successful formation of The Villages.
Morse brought his children – Tracy, Mark and Jennifer – in to help grow the family business. And before long, homes sales were booming and the decision was made to go forward with site-built homes instead of trailers.
In July 1993, the golf cart bridge crossing U.S. Hwy. 27.441 was dedicated and Villagers on the original side of town were able to cross the major thoroughfare to go shopping and enjoy new restaurants.
In the mid- to late-1990s, Spanish Springs Town Square was coming to life one building at a time whenever Morse could raise the money. Villages lore has it that Morse and his wife, Sharon, were eating dinner out one night when he drew Spanish Springs on a napkin. And today, that town square is believed to largely resemble that historic drawing.
The Villages continued to grow at a rapid pace in the early 2000s, with homes also being built in Marion County. But the big push was to cross CR 466 into Sumter County and then move full speed ahead to CR 466A and then to SR 44.
There were some nasty bumps along the way. Two anti-Villages Sumter County commissioners had vowed to vote against allowing the community to continue growing. But they were outvoted and everything looked like a go. That is, until Oxford hay farmer Daniel Farnsworth, president of Sumter Citizens Against Irresponsible Development, challenged the future growth in 2002 on several points, including water issues.
It took almost two years to get those issues settled, but in August 2004, the community’s second town square, Lake Sumter Landing, officially opened for business. New homes already were cropping up around the town square and it quickly became a popular destination for the nightly entertainment enjoyed by so many Villagers.
As home building blew past CR 466A and kept heading south, work started on the community’s third town square, Brownwood Paddock Square. It officially opened in October 2012 and before long Villagers were streaming in to enjoy the Brownwood Theater and the nightly entertainment on the Dog Trot Porch that mirrors the other town squares.
Now, with new homes going like wildfire south of CR 44, talk has turned to a fourth town square. That subject came up in July last year when it was part of a 30-year road construction agreement approved by Sumter County commissioners. That agreement states that The Villages is required to “develop the 4th town center or comparable lifestyle mixed-use retail center solely within Sumter County with aggregate regionally-serving commercial square footages similar in size to the existing town centers located in Sumter County (Lake Sumter Landing or Brownwood, respectively).”
So in the 36 years since Schwartz acquired Orange Blossom Gardens and Morse was brought in to build the mega-retirement community, The Villages has gone from 386 mobile homes to well over 65,000 homes, with a population of about 130,000 residents. And that number will just continue to climb as Baby Boomers retire and move into the newest homes that are springing up in the Southern Oaks area on a daily basis.