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The Villages
Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Rich history of The Villages means nothing to the Morse Millennials

There’s no other way to say it: Villages Founder Harold Schwartz would roll over in his grave if he knew his great-great-grandchildren – the Morse Millennials – were about to inundate his beloved retirement community with apartments.

By now we’re guessing that just about every Villages resident is aware of the Developer’s plan to construct apartments in the troubled Spanish Springs Town Square and at the nearby former Hacienda Hills Country Club site. He raised the hackles of many Villagers when he threatened to build a parking garage at the Hacienda Hills site if the Amenity Authority Committee didn’t grant him close to 300 amenity contracts for future apartment dwellers.

The Villages Developer is seeking to convert the now-shuttered Katie Belle’s into apartments.
The Country Western Wednesday dancers hit the floor at Katie Belle’s in April 2015.

That move also raised the ire of Community Development District 2 Supervisor Bill Schikora, who lives nearby in the Village of Santo Domingo, and CDD 2 Chairman Bryan Lifsey. Both have been vocal about their opposition to the apartment plan and the strong-arm tactics that were used on AAC members to get their approval.

The Developer’s next move was to shock Villagers even more by announcing last month that Katie Belle’s also would be converted to apartments. Villagers had been told in May that the legendary restaurant was being shuttered because of the devastating financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic – an explanation they started to question within hours of the announcement from Villages Operations Manager Ryan McCabe, the former son-in-law of Villages Vice President of Sales Jennifer Parr.

As many Villagers know, Katie Belle’s was once a special place – especially to some of the longtime residents on the Historic Side of the community and others living near Spanish Springs Town Square. Villages lore has it that late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse – the son of founder Schwartz and the guru that put The Villages on the map – drew the original plan for Spanish Springs Town Square on a napkin one night during dinner. Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of that plan was Katie Belle’s.

Clearly, Schwartz loved the special restaurant – so much so that it was named after his mother. His affinity for the Western-style dance hall was matched by many Villagers who spent countless hours enjoying live entertainment at the venue and a variety of delicious meals, including the highly popular “salad wheel” – a large contraption that resembled a Western-style wagon wheel loaded with fixings that patrons could spin around to the items or dressing they wanted to add to their tasty salads.

Harold Schwartz and H. Gary Morse

But as we’ve learned over the past several years, the rich history of The Villages means nothing to the Morse Millennials. And that was never more evident than in August when the apartment plan for Katie Belle’s was revealed.

The issue here is simple – a steady stream of money from the high-dollar rental units is going to put a lot more cash into the pockets of the Morse Millennials than selling drinks and cheeseburgers ever could. So when the first generation of the Morse family that’s never had to work for it weighed their options, Katie Belle’s was a goner. Plain and simple.

If that’s not enough we found out last week that even more apartments are planned for Spanish Springs. The Villages brass is seeking to convert some business-oriented square footage on the second floors of Spanish Springs buildings into apartments.

Amazingly, the Developer cited as his reasoning a lack of commercial demand in Spanish Springs – something we’re guessing didn’t sit quite well with exorbitant-rent-paying town square merchants. The Developer’s request for a zoning change to add “multi-family” as an allowable use in Spanish Springs Town will be heard by the Lady Lake Planning and Zoning Board at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 14 at Lady Lake Town Hall. We’d suggest Villagers who have thoughts or consternation brewing about these apartments might want to show up and make their feelings known.

The TooJay’s Deli at Spanish Springs Town Square unexpectedly shut its doors Thursday morning. The closure follows a bankruptcy filing in April by the eatery’s parent company amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as news of The Villages plans to begin building apartments throughout the town square area.
This sign was left on the door of Demshar’s restaurant in Spanish Springs Town Square on Thursday telling customers that the eatery was temporarily closed.

Not surprisingly, this apartment plan has raised a litany of questions about the future of Spanish Springs Town Square. For starters, three restaurants there – Katie Belle’s, TooJay’s Deli and Demshar’s – already have shut their doors. One has to wonder if those apartment dwellers will want the noisy town square entertainment to return. And merchants have to be quite concerned, because apartments beget apartments, not loads of residents and others from outside the community shopping in the stores and enjoying meals at the restaurants in Spanish Springs.

Frankly, this entire debacle has made several things clear to us. First, Spanish Springs Town Square is doomed. Those apartment dwellers won’t be able to keep the surviving retail shops and restaurants open for business, so before it’s all over, we’re guessing some of that first-floor retail space also will be converted to high-priced apartments. Could that have been the goal of the Morse Millennials’ cockeyed plan to start with?

The Lofts at Brownwood

Second, Villagers who have shelled out their hard-earned money to enjoy a special kind of retirement lifestyle here had better get used to living near apartments. The Developer is still patting himself on the back for the community’s first apartment venture, the Lofts at Brownwood, and you can bet you’ll see that concept repeated in the newer parts of the community south of State Road 44. In fact, he’s already seeking amendments to development orders for the southern end of the community that will contain that same “multi-family” designation and likely result in new apartment units scattered throughout the community.

Third – and perhaps most disturbing – is the fact that the Morse Millennials apparently won’t be happy until they have killed the golden goose. Katie Belle’s was a special place to Schwartz and to just toss it aside in favor of apartments is a slap into the face to the founder who actually lived in the community, walked around and talked to his neighbors and listened to what they had to say.

We can only imagine what Morse would say if he were alive today. Those who knew him know apartments weren’t on his radar and we can’t fathom him ever allowing them to be.

But what we can imagine is him quietly shaking his head with a big “no.” And we can see him reminding his misguided grandchildren that the taste of the roast is determined by the handshake of the host, not their desires to cheapen the nation’s premier retirement community with apartments in order to line their pockets with huge wads of cash.

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