MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And Im Robert Siegel.
In the U.S., this young century has already witnessed two wars, two recessions, one banking crisis, and the worst housing downturn in living memory. But in central Florida, there is a 21st century American boom town that defies economic gravity. It's called the Villages.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) It's a little slice of paradise.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Sunshine and golf galore.
Unidentified Group (Singing): Where neighbors stroll the old town square and the good life is in store. The Villages...
SIEGEL: The 2000 Census counted around 8,000 residents in this retirement community. Now, there are 80,000. There are no permanent residents under 19. Children who visit are unwelcome after three weeks. Every household is home to at least one person over 55 - and they keep coming.
Phyllis Clayhaus(ph) is a lobby host at the sales office, where they post the names and home states of new villagers.
Ms. PHYLLIS CLAYHAUS: These people all closed on their homes today, so those are new - brand-new people. I think 22 today.
SIEGEL: Twenty-two people just closed today.
Ms. CLAYHAUS: Yes, absolutely.
SIEGEL: They buy homes that range from under $150,000 to over a million.
One huge attraction: golf. Don Hahnfeldt, a 65-year-old retired submarine captainm is head of the Village Homeowners Association.
Mr. DON HAHNFELDT (President, The Villages Homeowners Association): There are 486 holes of golf here, up to 9,000 tee times per day. And last year, there were 2 and a quarter million rounds of golf.
SIEGEL: Don Hahnfeldt drove me around the Villages in one of the two golf carts that he and his wife, Cheryl, own.
Mr. HAHNFELDT: In the Villages, when you speak about being convenient, that means golf-cart accessible.
SIEGEL: And that category includes golf courses, rec centers, shopping areas and restaurants. Most of the big retailers - the Wal-Mart, the supermarkets -are across a highway.
Mr. HAHNFELDT: So, tying this network together - to get across a main street like this to get on the other side, which we're about to do, we'll go through one of the several dozen tunnels.
SIEGEL: So, tunnel under the road.
Mr. HAHNFELDT: Under the road.
SIEGEL: There's even one golf cart bridge that goes over a road.
The allure of the sunshine, the low taxes, the golf, also the softball, the bowling, the dancing, the mah jhong, the ease of shopping, the ease of meeting people - all that has fueled the Villages' phenomenal growth, and it just keeps on growing.
Mr. HAHNFELDT: And the eventual population of 105,000 will live in 55,800 homes.
SIEGEL: So it's just about three-quarters of the way there. It's beautiful, and it's about as natural as a fairway bunker on a long, landscaped par-four.
Mr. ANDREW BLECHMAN (Author, "Leisureville"): Nothing is what it seems in the Villages. I mean, nothing.
SIEGEL: Andrew Blechman wrote about the Villages in his book "Leisureville." He calls it an age-segregated community, something unprecedented in history. But then, history means something different in the Villages.
Mr. BLECHMAN: You have a manmade lake, which is supposed to be hundreds of years old with a lighthouse. And they even have boat tours on it, even though you can swim across it in about five or six minutes. You have buried trolley tracks, which were supposedly abandoned in favor of golf carts years later, which dont - you know, never existed. The whole place was built in a year or so. It has two manufactured downtowns, and they were themed by entertainment specialists from Universal Studios.
SIEGEL: The entertainment specialists even provided fake historic markers and plaques of rich and playful back-story.
For Villagers like Dan Hahnfeldt, the made-up history is part of the d�cor.
Mr. HAHNFELDT: This is the original downtown area, and you see quite an interesting street here. The buildings look like they're all from the 1800s and so on, with their little, historical plaques like the Cattlemen's Association and all that sort of thing. Here's one established 1872. Thats all just made-up history and fictitious...
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: More like established 1999, you'd say.
Mr. HAHNFELDT: Yeah, it's great fun and part of the interesting story of the Villages.
(Soundbite of a swing band)
SIEGEL: At the other town center, Market Square, there is music and dancing every evening at 5. Residents drive there in their golf carts, which line the curbs of an imitation fishing village and also fill up a sizable parking lot. And they're not just any golf carts. They have headlights and directional signals. Some have flaps; some have doors. Some are designed to look like vintage cars or trucks. Many sport a decal for a hometown team, a college, or a branch of the service.
Needless to say, the Villages claims to be the world's biggest market for golf carts - or as these upgraded models are called, golf cars.
Ms. DENA BALOFF(ph): I dont want the glove compartment.
Unidentified Man #2: OK. If you wanted the glove compartment, its fine.
Ms. BALOFF: See this shelf...
Unidentified Man #3: It's long and thinner...
SIEGEL: Dena Baloff of Mayo Park, New York, was shopping for a golf car with her husband at the golf cars dealership at Market Square. A used model could go for $5,000 or $6,000. A top-of-the-line, new golf car fetches five figures. Dena Baloff just wanted one with sliding doors.
What do you think about a golf car that would, you know, be a little more imaginative and, you know, look like a fire engine or something like that?
Ms. BALOFF: I think a golf cart should look like a golf cart. Cars should look like cars. Golf carts should look like golf carts.
SIEGEL: But sales manager Ernie Keckonen can also oblige customers with a more fanciful taste in golf cars. He showed me something that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a Bentley.
Mr. ERNIE KECKONEN (Sales Manager, The Village Golf Cars): The name of this company is Yesteryear Cars.
SIEGEL: Now, if somebody came and asked you to see the most imaginative and most luxurious golf car you could sell them, what would you show them?
Mr. KECKONEN: We would show them a brand-new Yesteryear Car.
SIEGEL: That phrase, a brand-new yesteryear, describes the Villages perfectly. But beyond its borders - and it sprawls over an area larger than Manhattan -there is a patch of rural Florida that has its own real yesteryear. Most of the Village sits in Sumter County. Its north of Orlando and south of Gainesville.
Gary Breeden is a Sumter County commissioner who is very supportive of the Villages. We sat on a lakeside patio. Some rowboats were bobbing in the water nearby -they're just props. And Breeden remembers that lake as a muddy pond.
Mr. GARY BREEDEN (Commissioner, Sumter Country): I remember when all of this was ag land. It was either pasture - folks were growing watermelons, beans, tomatoes, cantaloupes, things of that nature.
SIEGEL: And Gary Breeden says the development has been good.
Mr. BREEDEN: If you want to have development, this is the way to do it. The way the Villages developed was a high density, a small portion of the county. The rest of countys managed to pretty much remain agricultural. People dont live here and drive anywhere. Theyve got everything they need here, basically, and they can get to most of it on a golf cart.
SIEGEL: Not everyone in Sumter County agrees with Gary Breeden. Jim Roberts used to be a county commissioner, and he opposed the Villages, which now account for the overwhelming majority of Sumter County's population.
Mr. JIM ROBERTS (Former Commissioner, Sumter County): I enjoy the Villages. I enjoy the people of the Villages. But the ownership, and the struggle for control of this county, was monumental. The county lost.
SIEGEL: The county lost?
Mr. ROBERTS: The county lost.
SIEGEL: How so? How did the county lose?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, it lost its rural nature. It lost control of the county. In 2004, the developer and his contractors put together a referendum to change the nature of electing county commissioners - from having a single district, where a commissioner would represent the people of one of five districts in the county, to a countywide vote.
As a result of that, the people at the Villages were able to elect their commissioners as well as everyone else's. Their numbers just so outnumber the population of the county that they control every election.
SIEGEL: Here's another striking thing about the Villages: The developer, Gary Morse - would not talk with us for this story, despite several requests - owns just about everything.
Unidentified Man #3: You're listening to AM 640 WVLG. And yeah, we remember Fleetwood Mac.
(Soundbite of song, "Rhiannon")
SIEGEL: The local radio station, which of course plays oldies - its also piped by loudspeaker to the two downtowns - is owned by the developer. So is the Villages' Daily Sun, a full-sized newspaper with multiple sections. It has a local reporting staff, and runs AP stories about the rest of the world.
The golf car store, which advertises in the paper and on WVLG, is also owned by the developer.
Writer Andrew Blechman describes this as people gladly trading a more diverse, complex environment for life with a simple, benign and powerful developer.
Mr. BLECHMAN: Everything is owned by the developer. The government is owned by the developer. Everything's privatized, and they're happy with that. You know, they traded in the ballot box for the corporate suggestion box.
SIEGEL: Not everyone is entirely happy. I met Joe Gorman at the Panera restaurant in Spanish Springs. Thats the downtown where the fictional Cattlemen's Association used to have its imaginary headquarters.
Mr. Gorman is president of the Property Owners Association of the Villages. Unlike the Homeowners Association, this group is often critical of the developer. But even this local gadfly swears by life in this synthetic paradise.
Mr. JOE GORMAN (President, Property Owners Association): I would say living here is 90 percent great. Not good - great.
SIEGEL: Whats an example of a rough spot youve had?
Mr. GORMAN: Well, vinyl siding, that's a real good example. I don't know, maybe half the homes here in the Villages are sheathed with vinyl siding. We have a fellow who moved here from Poughkeepsie, New York, and he was a contractor up there. And he said when he was up there, he did maybe 500 vinyl siding jobs. He was just very experienced in vinyl siding. And he started realizing, looking at the vinyl siding jobs, that these were very, very poorly done.
SIEGEL: Joe Gorman says that after his group raised that issue, over a thousand homes were eventually repaired. He says the vinyl siding story escaped the notice of the local paper and the radio station completely, as does his organizations work in general.
For writer Andrew Blechman, the central problem with the Villages is what's missing: kids.
Mr. BLECHMAN: I mean, it's awfully pretty. You know, there's perfect lawns, picket fences, every driveway is just about scrubbed - some people literally do mop their driveways - but it's like driving through the set of "Leave it to Beaver." But it's kind of like, where's Beaver?
SIEGEL: And the answer is, if Beaver's dad or mom works for the Villages, or a company that contracts with the Villages, you might find him attending one of the Villages' charter schools. They were built to attract doctors and other professionals who have families to work here, even if they can't live here. There are family-friendly subdivisions nearby.
This was baseball practice at the very well-appointed charter high school. Florida permits workplace charter schools, operated by an employer, for the children of employees. Calling the Villages a workplace is a stretch - a community of 80,000 people, its developer and all its contractors. But if a child has no family employed by them, the charter schools are off-limits.
The lines between public and private, civic and commercial, real and fictional are being blurred in the Villages, and it doesn't seem to bother the villagers at all.
Ms. JILL RUSTASI(ph): What's aya(ph)?
Ms. JOAN JORDAN: Aya? I don't know. Two-letter word, ya, but that's a pizza.
Ms. RUSTASI: A ya is a pizza?
SIEGEL: These two Long Island women, Jill Rustasi and Joan Jordan, were playing Scrabble in a rec hall. There are, of course, dozens of rec halls.
Ms. RUSTASI: People here are busier now than when they worked. I mean, whether it's a sport, a game, a class - people are really doing their very best to make every day count.
Ms. JORDAN: A good place to retire.
Ms. RUSTASI: It's a good place to live. You know, if you could figure out how to live here before you retire, you'd really have your cake and eat it.
SIEGEL: Retirement at one time just meant no more work. And in Florida, it has long meant no more snow. But in the Villages, it means no more school buses holding up traffic, no more loud teenagers, no more local government intruding into your life, no media full of bad news about your community - in short, a life free of irritation.
Is that just as illusory as an historic plaque commemorating an imaginary history or a golf cart that looks like a Hummer? Well, for 80,000 residents of The Villages, it seems to be just as real as retirement should be.
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