A “Westworld” for Retirees?Posted: July 19, 2014
“Westworld” is a film from 1973 by Michael Crichton. Although a bit dated, whenever I see a story about a gated, managed community I can’t help but think of it as a kind of (one hopes) benevolent version of Crichton’s idyllic, manufactured “Westworld” facility. In Florida, one finds The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community with 110,000 residents living a totally controlled enclave of 85 square miles in central Florida owned and managed by the Holding Company of the Villages Ltd. owned by H. Gary Morse and his family. According to Bloomberg
They have sold more than 50,000 new homes since 1986, generating $9.9 billion in revenue, according to disclosures in municipal-bond filings. The Villages, which has rules governing everything from how long children can visit to how many pet fish residents can keep, has helped Morse build a family fortune worth $2.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
In addition to selling homes, Morse, 77, and his family own the local newspaper, a radio station and a television channel. They also hold a controlling interest in Citizens First Bank, which provides mortgages. The holding company is the landlord of more than 4.5 million square feet of commercial real estate, including dozens of restaurants and retailers.
“They own everything,” said Andrew Blechman, author of Leisureville, a book about The Villages and other retirement communities that ranks Morse’s as the biggest. “You basically have a city of 100,000 people, owned by a company.”
The over-65 population in the U.S. increased 74 per cent between 1970 and 2000, more than twice the rate of those 64 and younger, census figures show.
Marketers for The Villages, where new home prices range from about $150,000 to $1 million, have capitalized, airing commercials on the Golf Channel. The ads lured Conkle — who worked for four decades as a General Motors Co. machine repairman in Muncie, Indiana — to the Villages 20 years ago. He now says he can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“One thing I like about The Villages is how clean it is,” Conkle said, driving past a flower-adorned roundabout with manicured golf ranges to the east, west and south. “There’s hardly any crime. I don’t know any place that’s safer than here.”
Golf-cart accidents have killed more people than criminals, said Elaine Dreidame, president of the Property Owners’ Association of The Villages. It regularly hosts Republican politicians. Former President George W. Bush and presidential candidate Mitt Romney have appeared there.
In such a pre-programmed, sheltered and utter predictable setting, one wonders what would happen in The Village if anything utterly unexpected or different punctured the routine? Speaking of old films, perhaps it might devolve into a version of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” that classic Twilight Zone episode by Rod Serling.