SUN CITY CENTER — Valerie Kelly doesn't drive a car anymore.
But that's not a problem in Sun City Center, where Kelly remains mobile, like so many residents of this retirement community, thanks to her golf cart. The grocery store, the hospital, even her church are just a few scoots away.
"It's a wonderful spot. It's a wonderful life," said Kelly, 75, a Bergen County, N.J., transplant who has lived in Sun City Center for 14 years. "You just can't get to Walmart."
Soon, Hillsborough County officials hope, even the Walmart Supercenter should be accessible by golf cart.
County commissioners have approved spending about $250,000 to build a golf cart path and crossing at U.S. 301 linking the residential areas of Sun City Center to the side entrance of Walmart. County officials are hoping to finalize purchasing an easement across private property just south of State Road 674 by the end of the month to make it happen.
The path and crossing have been a top priority of many residents since the new Walmart opened more than two years ago.
"I viewed it as a mobility issue, as a quality of life issue," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who along with Commissioner Al Higginbotham have worked with residents to make it happen. "This was something the residents were very organized to support."
A similar golf-cart crossing connects the neighborhoods south of State Road 674 to the shops and medical offices to the north, and west of U.S. 301. That's where Walmart used to be located.
That crossing comes complete with flashing lights and signs warning motorists to watch for golf carts.
To get to the new Walmart east of U.S. 301, residents risk possible citations, not to mention cars passing at 55 mph.
Residents rallied, collecting more than 4,000 petition signatures asking that commissioners do something. The community has established a reputation for turning out to vote, so its grass roots activism got the board's attention.
Commissioners have tentative plans to build a golf-cart bridge across U.S. 301 in the future, if voters approve a 1-cent sales tax increase next year. But construction, expected to cost $8 million, is years off.
"I view this as a fix we can put in place almost immediately," said Hillsborough County Public Works director Bob Gordon.
The county would take the money for the less-costly cart crossing from a pool commissioners set aside each year to tackle unforeseen traffic safety issues. A little more than $100,000 would go to purchase the easement across private land, and the rest would go to build the path and install flashing warning lights and signs along U.S. 301.
The path will link E Del Webb Boulevard to U.S. 301 at Cape Stone Avenue, which leads to a side entrance to the Walmart as well as a public bus stop hub. The Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to lower the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph along U.S. 301 near the intersection.
A visit to the Publix supermarket west of U.S. 301 and across from Walmart shows just how important golf carts are to the Sun City Center way of life. The supermarket includes a row of golf cart-only parking spots and they were full for most of a recent afternoon.
Their users generally welcomed the news that a golf cart link to Walmart may be in the offing.
"There's a number of people going across now without any safety measures," said Dennis Freeland, 69. "I'll use it."
Still some, including Freeland, expressed some anxiety about people crossing such a busy highway.
"I think it's going to be very dangerous," said Carol Kulis, 84, a 20-year resident who said she refused to sign a petition calling for it.
Ed Barnes, president of the Sun City Center Community Association, acknowledged that there are differing views. By and large, he said, residents value access to Walmart and its range of cheap household goods.
He sees proof that some residents are already taking a bigger risk. Every day, a number of Walmart shopping carts are retrieved from Publix, meaning people are making the trek on foot.
Kelly, who had lamented her inability to get to the new Walmart in her golf cart, said she nevertheless also refused to sign petitions calling for a crossing. She doesn't like tax dollars being spent on it and also worries it may prove dangerous.
Then, again, she regularly crosses State Road 674.
"I'm sure if it's there, I'll use it," Kelly said.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.