Amenities Like 'Free Golf For Life' Make This The Fastest-Growing Place In America
All during the coronavirus pandemic, the narrative has been that Sun Belt cities have been growing, but the area with the largest population growth in the nation isn't Miami, Atlanta or Charlotte, North Carolina.
Census data released last week revealed that The Villages, a retirement haven in Central Florida that spills across 32 square miles in three counties, was the fastest-growing metropolitan area over the past decade. The population jumped 38.9% between 2010 and 2020, from about 93,000 residents to about 130,000.
The Villages’ roots go back to the 1960s, when a Michigan developer, Harold Schwartz, sold land tracts via snail mail. He and a business partner, Al Tarrson, then developed their holdings as a mobile home park before seizing on the realization that amenities could really boost sales. They let seniors see their retirement years as a life stage full of fun and friends rather than one of decline.
Led largely by Schwartz's son, H. Gary Morse, The Villages bought up land voraciously, built golf courses and offered “free golf for life.” The tagline still sticks today. A promotional site for the development says that for a $164-per-month amenity fee, residents get membership to multiple country clubs and free golf on 54 courses.
There is live entertainment every night of the year at three performing arts centers, three town squares and three movie theaters. There are also individual and competitive sports (including more than 100 pickleball courts), arts and crafts, music and theater, reading clubs and science activities — some 2,700 activities altogether. It has a fire department and hospital but relies on municipal police.
The Villages is still largely controlled by Morse's descendants, as are a TV station, a radio station and a newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun. As a census-designated place, the Villages is an unincorporated community that lacks a legally defined boundary and a typical governmental structure. It is controlled by Community Development Districts that have boards of supervisors. Residences are for ages 55 and up. Visitors age 1 and up must carry ID cards when visiting, and guests under 18 can't stay more than 30 days in a row.
Census data says 81.6% of the population is over age 65 and 98% of residents are White. The Villages is influential in elections and is considered a Republican stronghold.
A New York Times short documentary produced this year showed a glimpse of life inside the “senior utopia.” Morse’s son explained how it had been founded “in the middle of nowhere” and that its organizing principle was that it had to be connected by golf carts. The film also showed how the development encroaches on neighboring properties and how sinkholes have been prompting some homeowners to move.
An independent news site competing with the Daily Sun, Villages-News.com, offers a glimpse at the dark side of the Villages — like families getting fined $150 for a yard ornament or Homeowners Associations officials’ conundrum over what to do with urns containing ashes of deceased homeowners. The site also illuminates development pressures, like out-of-state firms buying up multifamily complexes nearby and residents’ battles over whether apartments should be allowed. Census data indicates that 95.9% of homes in The Villages are owner-occupied.
According to The Villages Daily Sun, the area’s boom is expected to continue for the next two decades. The paper cited estimates from the state's Bureau of Economic and Business Research showing that Sumter County, in which much of the Villages is located, now has about 168,000 residents, but that figure could climb to 190,000 in 2030 and 224,000 by 2040.
CORRECTION, AUG. 24, 11:15 A.M. ET: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of The Villages. The story has been updated.