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Authors: Andrew D. Blechman

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BOOK: Leisureville
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“I miss the pumpkins,” my uncle says wistfully.

Free Golf!

park for retirees in the boondocks of central Florida. The exact story has been clouded by the distinct lack of enthusiasm of the developer, Harold “Gary” Morse, for speaking with the press, especially about his family.

Morse clearly prefers to
news in the physical sense—his privately owned development company runs its own print and broadcast media outlets. Reporters working for the mainstream media tell me that obtaining information from official channels is akin to squeezing information out of the Kremlin. One told me, “You can ask if the sky's blue and they still won't comment.”

When I call the public relations department seeking an interview with Morse, my request is instantly rejected. Gary Lester, the vice president for community relations, seems only moderately interested in meeting with me himself, even after I explain to him that I am writing a book about The Villages.

“We feel pretty secure,” Lester tells me, when we finally meet for a cup of coffee. A former Protestant minister, Lester is a tall thin man with a sharp nose, piercing eyes, and a blow-dried mop of hair. “We don't feel the need to spin you. The residents are the real story, and they love it here. Just go up to anyone and ask. They'll all tell
you the same thing: The Villages provides a lifestyle that can't be beat. We have businessmen visiting from South Africa, Central America, China, Japan—they all want to learn how we do things so they can copy us. They even try to incorporate the word ‘villages' into the names of their developments.”

When asked, he once again informs me that an interview with his boss, Gary Morse, is out of the question because, “Mr. Morse is a very shy man.” I ask him why such a shy man named The Villages' major thoroughfare after himself: Morse Boulevard is the development's main artery. Lester declines to comment.

As Lester says, The Villages is very secure. Not only are most residents bursting at the seams to heap praise on the development, but within hours of touring the community, many visitors decide to buy a home. Northerners are flocking to The Villages, as are hurricane-wary Floridians in search of safer weather and affordable home insurance. Growth and revenues are through the roof.

According to industry experts, The Villages was the top-selling planned community in America in 2005, for the third straight year. In that year alone, The Villages sold 4,263 new homes, or nearly one every two hours, and pulled in gross revenues of more than $1 billion. The Villages has sold more homes each year than the last for ten straight years. One industry consultant told me, “Even the military doesn't build houses that fast. This is a retirement community on steroids.”

There are nearly 75,000 people living in The Villages in about 38,000 homes, and that number is expected to grow rapidly as the development finishes its build-out—an industry term for the point when a project is complete—in the very near future. The Villages will then encompass over 20,000 acres in an area of roughly thirty-three square miles, and house 110,000 residents. Manhattan, by comparison, is twenty-four square miles in area.

Gary Morse's father, Harold Schwartz, is considered the founding father of the community. Schwartz died in 2003 at age
ninety-three, and his ashes are kept in Spanish Springs, inside a statue built to honor him while he was still alive. As Schwartz's colorful persona slowly attains the status of legend, it also becomes harder to piece together the true story of the man and his business. To do so, one needs to cross a six-lane highway spanned by a steep golf cart bridge. On the far side, less than half a mile from the center of Spanish Springs, lies another, humbler “village.” It's called Orange Blossom Gardens, and it's here that The Villages' history begins.

By most accounts, Harold S. Schwartz, who was born in Chicago, was lively and peripatetic. The grandson of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Harold came from decidedly modest means. The family was so impoverished that Harold's father and two uncles were placed in an orphanage. Harold's father later married outside the faith, set up shop as a tailor, and moved his family into a crowded tenement on Chicago's South Side. Although something of a violin prodigy as a youth, Harold had to put aside his artistic pursuits and instead work as a traveling salesman for his father's business. Harold later branched out into the mail-order business, selling vitamins, cuckoo clocks, and leather billfolds with zippers. He wrote his own advertising copy, placed it in comic books and other publications, and shipped the products from his office.

Harold's first wife, Mary Louise—Gary's mother—grew up in the same tenement building as Harold and attended the same high school. Once married, the young couple moved in with Harold's extended family. They divorced about ten years later, and both remarried. Mary Louise left Chicago with Gary and his sister, and eventually resettled in a small town in northern Michigan called Central Lake, a vacation area not far from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Mary Louise shared her ex-husband's entrepreneurial streak. When sugar was rationed during World War II, she and her second husband, Clifford Morse, raised bees and produced honey. She and
Gary sold the honey door-to-door, as well as at a makeshift roadside stand. In time, the roadside stand, which was enlarged and renamed the Brownwood Honey House, carried vegetables and flowers grown by the family, and local crafts such as moccasins and pottery. Not surprisingly, Mary Louise turned to mail order as well: first Christmas greens, then gift boxes with honey and homemade jam. To further promote the growing business, Gary's mother relocated an old one-room schoolhouse to the Brownwood site and opened a small country store.

Mary Louise's next marketing idea brought her regional fame for its bravado: one winter she moved an abandoned stagecoach inn across a frozen lake to her growing tourism complex. Halfway across the lake, the ice began to shudder and crack, and the workman jumped to safety as the inn slowly sank. Fortunately, it sank atop a sandbar and the frigid water reached only the first floor windows. Residents far and wide gathered to catch a glimpse of the half-sunken country inn, many opting to figure-skate around it once the ice refroze. Mary Louise refused to admit defeat and was said to have been furious when several local men offered to set the inn afire. Two weeks later laborers were able to cut a path in the ice and float the inn to shore. The Brownwood complex eventually added an ice cream parlor, history museum, and tearoom. The family's farmhouse was soon transformed into a small steak house.

Gary seems to have inherited his family's drive to make money and its uncanny ability to promote its business ventures. As a teenager, he took his stepfather's name—Morse. After high school he left town for college, but soon dropped out and moved back in with his mother.

Gary put all his energy into making the Brownwood complex grow, paying particularly close attention to the steak house. He began offering free nightly entertainment, and the restaurant soon became the place to hang out for locals and the legions of tourists visiting during the summer months. At one point, Gary had to erect
a giant circus tent to accommodate all his customers. He eventually built a dedicated concert space, and continued expanding the restaurant until it sprawled across the Brownwood property.

Many locals fondly refer to that time in Central Lake's history as the “Brownwood era.” This was a time when scores of attractive coeds worked for the restaurant and partied intensely after work. In contrast to the Brownwood's lively reputation, Gary is often described as somber, aloof, and a “hard guy to get to know.”

Meanwhile, Gary's father, Harold, remained in Chicago, but traveled extensively, buying radio stations, gas stations, office buildings, and other real estate across the country. At one point he owned the maximum number of broadcasting stations permitted for one person and circumvented the federal law by setting up two “border blasters”—extremely high-power radio stations that broadcast to the United States from across the Mexican border. It was at one of these stations that the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack launched his career.

Harold also turned to land speculation. He and a business partner bought land cheaply in Florida, New Mexico and elsewhere, subdivided it, and sold it sight unseen by mail order to American and British retirees dreaming of owning a home in the sun. At the time, Harold owned a hotel in Miami and took occasional trips around the state scouting out additional real estate to flip or develop. That's how he came across the several hundred acres of remote pastures and watermelon fields in central Florida that would become Orange Blossom Gardens. Harold paid $150 an acre and sold it by mail in quarter-acre parcels for $295 each.

When the Florida legislature banned mail-order land sales in the late 1960s, Harold and his business partner were left holding the watermelon fields. Harold left his business associate in charge of the land. The partner decided to manage a trailer park on it, but after ten years and only 400 homes sold, he wanted out. Harold wasn't sure if he wanted to keep the investment either.

But then, like “Big Ben” Schliefer, Schwartz paid a visit to Arizona—in his case, to his sister, who had recently moved to Sun City. He was impressed by what he saw. In contrast to his dinky mobile home park in the boondocks, Sun City was selling the dream of retirement on a grand scale, with recreation centers, numerous golf courses, and an active lifestyle for “those lucky enough to retire.” Schwartz marveled that Sun City was in the middle of nowhere and yet managed to attract legions of retirees with promises of the good life. Webb's vision soon became Harold's road map.

In 1983, Harold bought out his business partner and set about selling more than homes; he started selling a lifestyle. “I got rid of everything I owned,” Harold later said. “At an age my friends were retiring, I put every cent I had into a high-risk venture. I was seventy-three.”

In need of a new business partner, Harold urged his son, Gary, to join him. The invitation couldn't have come at a better time. Because of Central Lake's tourist economy, local businessmen had to make three-quarters of their revenue in just the summer months; the rest of the time, the businesses catered to a local population of about 500. But Gary had saddled himself with a sprawling restaurant and entertainment complex designed to seat hundreds. By most accounts he had overexpanded his steakhouse and was now deep in debt.

Gary flew to Florida and walked around the Orange Blossom Gardens property with his father. He agreed that it had potential and promptly moved to central Florida with his wife and children. Although Gary's steakhouse soon went belly-up, he proved his business acumen at his father's trailer park in Florida.

When Morse arrived, the community consisted of small homes connected by narrow roads, and only one small recreation center, called the Paradise. Father and son quickly set about building a community like Sun City on a modest budget.

Gary brought more than just his family with him to Florida; he also brought tradesmen. If someone had a small lumberyard or a
one-truck cement business, Gary invited him to relocate his business to central Florida. Many of these men, previously the owners of small businesses, now run multimillion-dollar companies that service The Villages' empire.

Although not a golfer himself, Gary decided that the little dimpled golf ball was the crucial factor in making Orange Blossom Gardens a success. He transformed a field of watermelons into a decidedly modest nine-hole golf course and began advertising “Free golf!”

“Free golf” is still one of The Villages' major selling points, but it's more a slogan than a reality. Golf is “free” only on the nine-hole executive courses, and Villagers must still pay a trail fee if they want to use their golf carts. The cost of building and maintaining these “free” golf courses is included in the monthly amenity fees. In effect, all Villagers are subsidizing these executive courses for the minority who actually use them. Championship eighteen-hole courses can cost upwards of fifty dollars a game.

Regardless, the little mobile home park swelled with retirees practically overnight. By 1987, the development had $40 million in annual sales. In short order, Gary built more and more amenities: eighteen more holes of golf, an unpretentious country club, more pools, and another recreation center with its own restaurant.

As the community expanded, father and son tried to attract businesses that would cater to the residents' needs. They knew that conveniently located retail stores and doctors' offices were important to the creation of a truly self-contained community. But they couldn't find any takers. The area was still in the middle of nowhere, and retirees were often assumed to be poor, thrifty, and generally bad business. So the family members themselves opened and operated several businesses, including a gas station and mini-mart, a restaurant, a liquor store, and a Laundromat.

Flushed with success, they began building more homes on the other side of what was then a small county road but today is a sixlane
highway. Within ten years, the family had built its own downtown (Spanish Springs); and soon a Winn-Dixie supermarket, a few banks, and other businesses flocked to the development.

Each phase of housing was more upmarket than the previous one, but the neighborhoods were configured similarly with adjoining recreation facilities and golf courses, just like Sun City. Faced with an increasing number of new neighborhoods, Harold hit on an idea: he would call each one a “village.” Orange Blossom Gardens, with its little trailer homes and modest recreation center, was renamed “The Village of Orange Blossom Gardens.”

Golf carts quickly became a way of life. At first residents used them primarily to travel on actual golf courses, and then between golf courses, but pretty soon they used the carts to get around everywhere. Carts were inexpensive and easy to use, especially for people in failing health. And as The Villages grew, there were more and more places to take them.

BOOK: Leisureville
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