Retirees Demand Constant Activity in Arizona

Driving north from Phoenix, you pass one huge retirement community after another: Sun City, Sun City West, Sun City Grand. For decades, these communities have represented the cutting edge of retirement life. These days, that means satisfying the baby-boomer generation's quest for constant activity.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On January 1st, 1960 a retirement community opened on the site of a former cotton field outside Phoenix, Arizona. It was called Sun City. It changed the image of retirement life in America and Phoenix became a retirement Mecca. Now Sun City and its successors, Sun City West, Sun City Festival, face a different challenge: how to attract the coming wave of baby boomers.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS, reporting:

Back in the 1960s developer Dell Webb produced a promotional film depicting the prevailing mind set toward retirement and promoting an alternative.

(Soundbite of Dell Webb retirement film)

Unidentified Announcer: So this is retirement. Time on your hands with no place to go. There must be something else.

Unidentified Woman: Bill, let's go west. I know, let's go to Arizona...

ROBBINS: Sun City, Arizona, clean air, cheap land, and of course, sunshine. Sun City was close enough to Phoenix to be convenient, but far enough away to comfortably isolate the older generation. Author Mark Freedman studied Sun City and he said, when it began, its active way of life was revolutionary.

Mr. MARK FREEDMAN (Author): People had been told for decades to stay out of the way, to sit on the porch, and Webb summoned people off their porches and he gave them golf and shuffleboard and, it turns out that he was on to something.

ROBBINS: Sun City West was built in the 1970s after Sun City outgrew its boundaries. Retirees here, especially baby boomers, demand more than shuffle board.

(Soundbite of pickle ball)

ROBBINS: These residents are playing pickle ball, a fast pace cross between badminton and ping pong, played on a quarter sized tennis court. Martha Wasserman(ph) is 58.

Ms. MARTHA WASSERMAN (Resident, Sun City West): When I first came here, my very first sport was shuffleboard. And then I realized I was more active than shuffleboard and I joined the volleyball team and the coed softball team. And that's kind of where I started. And then pickle ball came into my life and I don't have time for volleyball anymore, but I'm still playing softball.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ROBBINS: Sun City West has clean uniformed streets with houses pretty much the same color as 98 percent of the residents here, white. Every month, hundreds of newcomers gather at the community rec center. They visit tables advertising clubs and activities like jewelry-making and golf. But these days there's also pickle ball, Pilates, yoga and technology courses.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ROBBINS: As residents die, the older retirement communities continually must market themselves to new generations. And they're competing with newer communities. Drive past Sun City and Sun City West, and you come to Sun City Grand. It features larger homes and newer amenities. Keep driving 13 miles into the desert and you arrive at the construction site for the next development, Sun City Festival. At a preview center sales associate Marilyn Webb points to an architectural model of the place filled with even more abundance.

Ms. MARILYN WEBB (Preview Center Sales Associate, Sun City Festival): Sun City Festival is going to have two fitness centers, the first one that will be ready in early 2007 is our safe center, which is a destination for wellness and life-long learning, 31,000 square feet. It will have an outdoor resort style pool with lap lanes. You'll also notice pickle ball courts and tennis courts around it. The Copper Canyon Grill and Golf Club you'll see over here to.

ROBBINS: The Sun City Festival site is geographical isolated, just like the original Sun City once was. But the original Sun City is now surrounded by newer subdivisions built for families. Author Mark Freedman says it makes sense that society is coming to retirees, because baby boomers want to remain part of society.

Mr. FREEDMAN: I believe that the dream that animated Sun City, this golden years notion, is at the end of its life course.

ROBBINS: Whatever the new American dream for retirement turns out to be, you're likely to find it in Phoenix. Dell Webb is hedging its bets. Along with Sun City Festival, it's building family and multigenerational housing in the area. There should be plenty of demand, the first baby boomers are now turning 60. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Find out how Phoenix is growing and growing, plus facing the challenge of a assimilating Latino immigrants, other stories in our series at NPR.org.

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