Fresh and juicy scandals in the Villages, 'Disney World for old people'

Published Jul. 23, 2013

The Native American tribes that once inhabited Florida left behind some wonderfully mellifluous place names, such as Okahumpka, Wewahitchka, Wacahoota, Umatilla, and Sopchoppy. The early settlers threw in some colorful ones, too: Tate's Hell Swamp, Yeehaw Junction, and my personal fave, Two Egg.

But the oddest community in Florida has the blandest name imaginable: the Villages. The place doesn't generate a lot of strange news, like Miami, Key West, and Pasco County. But that's part of what makes it so weird—even weirder, I would argue, than Gibsonton, the town so odd it inspired an X-Files episode.

The Villages is the largest gated over-55 community in the world. It holds more than 100,000 residents in an area bigger than Manhattan. And everyone gets around via golf cart. The first time I visited, I couldn't believe it. There were designated parking areas for golf carts at all the businesses. There were golf-cart tracks going everywhere. There are golf-cart tunnels and even a golf-cart bridge to cross the major highways. Why golf carts? Because nobody there really needs a car. Everything they could ever want is inside the gates.

Some of the golf carts "cost upwards of $25,000 and were souped up to look like Hummers, Mercedes sedans, and hot rods," Andrew D. Blechman noted in his book Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias. They aren't just for traveling around the three-dozen golf courses, either. According to Blechman, the Villages made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the world's longest golf-cart parade by lining up 3,321 of them.

There are other records the Villages holds. "We have the highest consumption of draft beer in the state of Florida," one Villages official boasted in 2002. It helps that the community has its own microbrewery that pipes beer beneath the streets to its town-square restaurants.

And then there are the distinctions they are not so thrilled about. In 2009, the New York Post labeled it "ground zero for geriatrics who are seriously getting it on." The story reported that couples had been caught having quickies in the golf carts and noted there was a thriving black market for Viagra. A local police officer told the paper, "You see two 70-year-olds with canes fighting over a woman and you think, 'Oh, jeez.' " As a result, the place that likes to bill itself as "America's Friendliest Hometown" has seen a huge increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

While pretty much anything goes in the community that some residents call "TV," one thing alone is forbidden: children. They can visit briefly, but that's it. "It's amazing that there's a place in America where children get visitors' passes like international visas," Blechman said. The Villages is "an endless playground for adults, but I only found one playground for children."

My buddy Jerry has parents who bought a home in the Villages 10 years ago. When Jerry visited his folks after they first moved in, the place creeped him out with its Stepford-like uniformity. "It was like Disney World for old people," he said. Then about five years ago he started thinking of it as "a college campus for old people. It's like an expensive party school." (His dad drove one of the golf carts in the parade that made the Guinness book.) Now, he says, he thinks of it as being "like a landlocked cruise ship. It's got everything you want to do, 16 hours a day. But then everything shuts down at 10 p.m."

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If you stroll around and read the historical plaques, as Jerry did, you find that the area had a fascinating history dating back to before the Civil War, full of Native American attacks, epidemics, shipping accidents, and odd characters like the guy who built a lighthouse on a lake and insisted he be called "the Commodore." The stories are a load of hooey, concocted over a bottle of Scotch and a case of beer by its developers.

The real history starts with a trailer park and a dream. In the 1970s, a Michigan businessman named Harold Schwartz bought land that became the Orange Blossom Gardens mobile home park. A decade in, Schwartz got his son, H. Gary Morse, to leave a Chicago advertising firm and come join him. They put in a golf course and didn't charge residents for using it, and the lure of free golf became the first step in drawing tens of thousands of new residents. By 1986 they were selling 500 homes a year and adding still more golf courses, pools, clubhouses, recreation centers, theaters, even a hospital. They put up a statue of Schwartz in a Disney-esque pose. After he died, his ashes were deposited inside the statue. Schwartz used to circulate and glad-hand, but not Morse. He's as approachable as the Wizard of Oz.

For Morse, the Villages has been akin to a private mint. He not only sold the residents their houses. He also owned the mortgage company that financed them. He's the landlord of all the commercial buildings. He owns all or part of pretty much everything worth owning in the Villages, including the bank, the hospital, the utilities, the garbage collection company, the TV and radio stations, and the newspaper, where never is heard a discouraging word about life in the Villages. (Also never mentioned: the numerous sinkholes that open up because of all the water pumped out of the ground to keep all those lawns and golf courses looking green.)

Thanks to the Villages, Morse is now a billionaire, and he's built a powerful political base. Morse and his family donated more than $1 million to Mitt Romney. They've already given $80,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's re-election committee. All the politicians he supports make sure they come to the Villages for a flag-waving campaign stop.

But here's where it gets really interesting. According to the Internal Revenue Service, the way Morse has built this grand empire may be about as rock-solid as the sinkhole-prone ground beneath it.

Like many Florida developers, Morse financed a big chunk of construction using something called a community development district, or CDD for short. The district levies fees on the homeowners to pay for roads and other improvements and under state law can borrow money using tax-free bonds. The CDDs in the Villages paid Morse millions of dollars to buy golf courses, guardhouses, and other amenities from him. But the IRS ruled last month that the Villages' CDD bonds did not deserve to be tax-exempt. Why? Because everyone who sits on the district board—like everything else in the Villages—is controlled by Morse. Those seats are supposed to be filled by residents, the IRS said.

So far Morse has politicians from both parties going to bat for him to make the IRS back off. But his most potent argument against the IRS comes from the Villages' residents themselves. According to Blechman, most show little interest in seizing control of their community from a leader they never see. Like most Americans, they're not interested in local politics. Maybe they'd feel differently if, instead of spending millions of dollars, the board was in charge of dispensing draft beer and Viagra.

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. This column originally appeared in Slate.