TALLAHASSEE — Harold Gary Morse, who became a political kingmaker for a generation of Republican candidates as the developer of the Villages, Central Florida's massive retirement community, died Wednesday night.
He was 77.
His death was reported by the Villages Daily Sun, the newspaper that he founded along with nearly everything else in what Forbes ranked this year as the fastest-growing small city in the United States.
The Villages, 90 miles northeast of Tampa Bay on land that had been cow pasture and watermelon fields, has seen its population double to about 110,000 between 2000 and 2013. According to the Daily Sun, it has 600 holes of golf, more than 100 restaurants, 76 recreational facilities and close to 4 million square feet of commercial space — all accessible by golf cart.
"That had never been done before," said St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, who built many of the retail centers in the Villages with Mr. Morse. "It was his biggest single innovation. He was an amazing visionary."
A staunch conservative with a net worth that Bloomberg News estimates at $2.9 billion, Mr. Morse contributed millions to Republican candidates and served as co-chairman of the Florida finance committee for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
More valuable to candidates than his money was the commodity inside the Villages: 61,000 registered voters, most of them Republicans, who became a major and reliable voting bloc.
The Villages has become a mandatory campaign stop for Republicans seeking office, state or national. Romney stopped there at least twice in 2012. In 2011, it was the backdrop to Gov. Rick Scott's budget unveiling, a tribute to the community's role in his 2010 victory.
Scott, whose re-election campaign has received $615,000 from the Morse empire, plans to stop at the Villages on the eve of Election Day next week with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Mr. Morse's death caused immediate ripples in the political world, with prominent figures such as Scott, his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush, issuing public statements of condolence.
"Gary Morse looked at the pastures and prairies of Florida's interior and saw the American Dream," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. "Not just for him, but for the tens of thousands of seniors who have been able to enjoy their golden years and continue to live them to their fullest. His vision created a retirement community unlike any other, and Florida is richer for his entrepreneurial spirit."
Mr. Morse, a former advertising and marketing executive, moved to Florida from Michigan in 1983 to work with his dad. They sold Central Florida mobile homes with a pitch: free golf.
It caught on with northern retirees, and sales hit $40 million by 1987. By the 1990s, Mr. Morse expanded the family business with the help of special taxing districts that floated tax-free municipal bonds, paid back by fees charged to residents.
In recent years, he battled the IRS, which said that the bonds shouldn't have been tax exempt, a status reserved for governmental entities, not private companies.
The tax savings helped Mr. Morse rapidly grow the community, which now has a charter school, a TV station, a radio station, a health care system, a bank, an insurance company and three downtown centers.
Mr. Morse not only built it all, he managed it too.
"If it was in the Villages, Gary Morse or one of his family members controlled it," Sembler said.
While most residents revered the reclusive Mr. Morse, others, often Democrats, complained that he was too controlling.
"You don't know you're being controlled, but you really are," Joseph Flynn, a local Democratic leader and retiree from Connecticut, told the Times/Herald in 2012. "And Morse is the one who controls you. He wants the control . . . to influence what he can."
Health issues slowed Mr. Morse considerably in recent years, Sembler said. A cause of death was not made public.
The Villages and its many offshoots — utilities, real estate sales, development companies — are now operated by his family.
"Dad never sought the limelight," a family statement stated shortly after Morse's death. "He was content to stay in the background and enjoy seeing Villagers revel in this amazing lifestyle of their adopted hometown. While he was a friend and adviser to captains of industry, presidents, and heads of state, he never lost focus on this community and making it the greatest retirement development in the world."
Mr. Morse is survived by his wife, Renee; son Mark; two daughters, Tracy Mathews and Jennifer Parr; and stepson Justin Wilson. He also is survived by 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His first wife, Sharon, died in 1999. According to the Daily Sun, he will be laid to rest in a private ceremony. Sembler said the family plans on keeping it small.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.