SUN CITY CENTER — When Del Webb designed Sun City Center back in the early '60s, he envisioned a quiet, sleepy little community conveniently located just off the interstate with plenty of golf courses, tennis courts and social activities galore for affluent retirees 55 and older.
With a few restaurants, a couple of supermarkets, a drug store and a gas station, as well as easy access to any part of town via golf cart, it was designed to be an idyllic place to spend those golden years after retirement.
Fast forward about 60 years and that sense of an isolated, peaceful little town is dissolving into a pleasant memory. With a population boom occurring in the surrounding communities of Wimauma, Ruskin, and even Riverview encroaching on Sun City Center, it is experiencing some unexpected growing pains.
A recent community assets and needs assessment study commissioned by the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay's South Shore Council highlighted the growing concerns of Sun City Center residents that the rapid, unchecked growth of population and housing in their neighborhood needs to be addressed.
There is no doubt that growth brings many changes in a community, positive and negative. South Shore Council chairman, Rick Rios, who was instrumental in commissioning the needs assessment survey by the Community Foundation, sees many positives in the area's sudden growth spurt.
"First and foremost, I see a big plus in economic development," Rios said. "The fact that we have gotten a WaWa, a Super Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Dunkin Donuts and even the Amazon plant is because of the development that's happening in this part of the county.
"We're going to enjoy more services and amenities because as we continue to grow, the county will have no choice but to spend more tax dollars down here."
Rios also sees that the growth around Sun City Center has contributed to the expansion of South Bay Hospital.
"One of the unique things about this community that you don't find in other retirement communities is a hospital right in the middle of it. That is huge," Rios said.
Dana Dittmar, executive director of the Greater Sun City Chamber of Commerce, also sees some benefits in the rapid growth of Ruskin and Wimauma.
"Eventually, we're going to get some nicer restaurants and shopping here," Dittmar said. "As younger populations encroach on both the east and west sides of Sun City Center, hopefully, we will be able to draw some of those shopping, retail, and entertainment facilities to our area."
Dittmar sees most of the growth in and around Wimauma.
"If you see Wimauma now, take a picture of it because in three to five years, it's not going to look like that. I believe it's going to look very similar to the intersection at Big Bend Road and U.S. 301," Dittmar said. "As big companies and developers come in and buy up all of the land where the "mom and pops" and the Mexican restaurants are and start putting in new restaurants and suburbia-type shopping centers, there's going to be a huge change."
Another benefit is the widening of U.S. 301 starting this summer.
Many seniors don't like to drive on the interstate so the expansion of this road between State Road 674 and Big Bend Road will give them easy access to Riverview and Brandon. The current two-lane road will be widened to six lanes with additional turn lanes.
Still, people expressed serious concern in the needs assessment survey about the drawbacks of growth. The biggest issue for Sun City Center residents is increased traffic on State Road 674. As the only thoroughfare from one end of town to the other, the increase in population brings an increase in traffic that is both exasperating and dangerous.
"Fifty-five years ago, having a one-road access as the only way from one end of Sun City Center to the other might have made sense," Dittmar said. "But today, it's just not working any more. The situation here with the golf carts is very dangerous because of the heavy traffic flow."
Dittmar is working with FDOT to find alternative exits from the community so motorists don't have to depend on State Road 674 as the only navigable route through town. Unfortunately, State Road 674 can't be widened but plans are to elongate the left-turn lanes and add stoplights to help control traffic.
Jeff Merry, the Sun City Center community resource deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, believes more new homes in Wimauma will exacerbate existing traffic problems.
"I know that in the next three to four years, they expect another 8,000 rooftops just in the 674/301 area," Merry said. "You've got the Lennar neighborhood south of WaWa which will have about 2,500 homes, Crystal Lagoon east of WaWa with another 2,500, and then Valencia Lakes is going to triple its size and stretch all the way down to Bill Tucker Road. That's a lot of people."
Merry also foresees an increase in crime as a negative effect of the population growth.
"We're going to combat it as best we can, but when you bring in younger people, crime is going to go up," Merry said. "Most people that commit crimes are within that 16-24 age group so your crimes like shoplifting, petty thefts, and break-ins are going to increase."
Dittmar concurred with Merry's concern: "As we add neighborhoods with young kids, that can bring in gang activity and then the next thing you know, you've got a higher crime rate spilling over into pristine Sun City Center which is not going to sit too well with our residents."
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]