Most Villagers probably don’t know it, but the idea for Florida’s Friendliest Hometown actually came from another famous developer and a retirement community 2,100 miles to the west.
The year was 1983 and Villages Founder Harold Schwartz had socked his money into a small mobile home park called Orange Blossom Gardens (OBG) in the small town of Lady Lake. Schwartz had much bigger dreams for his community and he knew to make that happen he’d need to bring his son, H. Gary Morse, aboard. But he also drew inspiration from an unlikely source – Del Webb.
At the time, when Schwartz was dreaming about making OBG a retirement mecca, Webb was the king of the retirement community industry (the company that carries his name purchased Spruce Creek Golf & Country Club, just a few miles north of The Villages in 1998 for $45 million). Called a visionary and guru, Webb and Schwartz had one thing in common – they both enjoyed highly successful and profitable years as retirement community developers after working in various other jobs most of their adult lives.
For Schwartz, the path to his Central Florida trailer park came through a varied background. As a young teenager, he played violin at a Chicago restaurant while being accompanied by his sister, Violet. He was a traveling salesman in his father’s tailoring business. And he sold health food via a mail-order business.
Schwartz also bought several radio stations in hopes that he could enhance his mail-order business over the airwaves. Two of his stations, known as “border busters” were in Mexico. And it was there that Schwartz discovered the most famous disc jockey of all time, Wolfman Jack.
Schwartz sold land in New Mexico and Florida through his mail-order business. But legislation eliminated that practice and at age 75, Schwartz found himself undertaking the challenge of making Orange Blossom Gardens into a community retirees would want to call home.
About that same time, Schwartz’s other sister, Ethel Shaw, called to tell him about Sun City in Phoenix, where she was a resident of the mega-Del Webb retirement community. She knew Schwartz was involved with a 386-unit mobile home community in Central Florida that’s now a portion of the Historic Side of The Villages. And she had plenty of share with him about the success of the community she called home.
Shaw told Schwartz about the wide variety of activities that were available for seniors at Sun City, from recreation to clubs and social gatherings. And she explained the mix of residential and commercial development and how it was the lifestyle being offered, not the location, that was making Sun City a huge success – all of which clearly caught Schwartz’s attention.
Schwartz liked what Shaw had to say and thought he could make a real go of it with Orange Blossom Gardens, even though a similar Del Webb-owned community named Sun City had failed in the Tampa area. His mantra was to create a retirement experience people could afford. And he made it clear that he wanted to see people from all walks of life and backgrounds enjoying the things his community would offer to them.
Meanwhile, Webb, an engineer, was known for building The Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas for underworld boss Bugsy Siegel – not far from the Tropicana Hotel, which was built by one of Schwartz’s partners. Webb had been an aspiring baseball player who created his own carpentry business in Phoenix and eventually became one of the largest contractors in Arizona, doing government jobs around the time of World War II.
Webb and a partner owned the New York Yankees for 20 years and enjoyed 10 World Series titles during that time. But he was builder at heart and in 1960 he created Sun City in Phoenix in what had once been a cotton field. Like The Villages, it sits in multiple counties and boasted a developer-owned newspaper and television station.
The original Sun City led to nine similar projects and inspired many others – including Schwartz – to pursue the dream of creating a community where the lifestyle is what it’s all about and people can enjoy the best years of their lives there.
Schwartz followed Webb’s vision and today, The Villages is home to more than 125,000 residents and is in full-growth mode in the southern part of Sumter County, with a 1,127-acre parcel in Leesburg to follow.