A History of Sun City Center

by John Bowker


Our story begins with one of the largest traffic jams that had ever been witnessed in Hillsborough County! The grand opening of Del Webb's Sun City had been advertised for weeks in the press, on radio and tv all over the country, particularly in the eastern states. And when that grand opening first week of business arrived, 41,000 people came to see! How did they get here? What did they see? That's all part of the story.

Of course, as historians we must first learn a bit more about the land that Del Webb had purchased for this development and a little about the man himself.

Del E. Webb, Jr. was a remarkable entrepreneur. He had built a solid reputation in the construction industry with his designs and building of hotel structures on the West Coast and, later, a few of the glitzy casinos of Las Vegas, Nevada. Along the way he learned of a new housing experiment in Finland that provided a self-contained community right from the start. The idea was to build homes, stores, recreation facilities, office and factory buildings, and all the other key amenities normally found in a small town.

He first tried this concept on the northwest fringe of Phoenix, Arizona by developing a retirement community called Sun City. The obvious success of that venture led the Del Webb organization to find another suitable site in California and, over the mild protests of Mr. Webb himself, a site in Florida. When the idea first came to him about starting such a community in the east along the lines of his Arizona and California Sun City ventures, he was attracted to Florida only after learning that NASA had selected Florida for its major launch site for satellites because of its favorable climate.

And so in late 1960, Del Webb visited this 12,000 +/- acre property that was owned by the Universal Marion Corporation. It ran from the Little Manatee River at the south to the approximate alignment of 19th Avenue at the north, and from U.S. 301 on the east to the approximate alignment of the present Interstate highway 75. For many years the property had been used as a cattle ranch. Universal Marion had purchased all the acreage to build a conventional housing development but had by then decided to abandon its plans. Among the owners of some of the property before Universal Marion was the Council family for whom Council Drive is now named.

Del Webb was escorted across the gently rolling property on his first visit by a cowhand named Berry Roberts (after whom Berry Roberts Drive is now named). Mr. Webb was shown the stream known as Cypress Creek that cut the property nearly in half running from north to south. There was also a watering hole for the cattle nearby, and a large cow pen situated where the lawn bowling and the arts & crafts buildings are now located. Another of the weekend cowhands who participated in the early orientation of Mr. Webb was Gene Smith who would be Manager of the Community Association Maintenance Department until his retirement in 1997.

From east to west, the property was neatly bisected by a narrow gravel two-lane road called the Ruskin-Wimauma Road. More importantly, it connected the main north-south highways U.S. 41 in Ruskin with U.S. 301 near Wimauma. By 1992, this road would become a divided 4-lane highway known as State Road 674, but in 1960 it was so narrow that two passing vehicles would each pull off toward the shoulder in order to make it by safely. As a sidelight, when Rickenbacker Drive was first built, drivers would quickly jump off the two lane road and come onto Rickenbacker in great relief for its entire length because of its wider roadbed.

The purchase of the property by Del Webb came in early 1961. As we now know, his proven path to success called for houses designed for retirement living at an affordable price, a place for potential residents to shop, a place for their recreation, a post office and a hotel with a restaurant. He also wanted to get this place going fast and set the nearly impossible target date of January 1, 1962, for the opening. That gave him less than a year to convert a cow pasture into a bustling and attractive community for retirees from up north.

Groundbreaking occurred on May 10, 1961. The first effort was to open up a few streets, primarily for access to where the model homes would be built. Architectural style? Simple! The design of houses to weather the climate in the Southwest was no different from the Florida climate. So his house building plans were already in hand from Sun City, Arizona!

The hotel he built was called the Kings Inn (later named the Sun City Center Hotel). But the best part of the story is that its architectural plans were a direct copy from the hotel in Sun City, Arizona! Materials for the hotel were ordered in Arizona, board by board, tile by tile, and shipped here by railroad, being unloaded at the Wimauma railroad station. It took only five weeks from ground breaking to a finished Kings Inn!

By now the outdoor pool and one of the arts and crafts buildings was in place, and the "North Course" golf course was open -- all nine holes and soon to be eighteen -- managed by Berry Roberts! And the watering hole? It was being dredged out by nearby resident and contractor Aaron Long to become Swan Lake! The sandy beach and long fishing pier where sail boats could tie up marked the lake as an obvious recreation center for future retirees to relax for many delightful hours. (Oh yes, there was both a beach and a fishing pier just down the slope off Cherry Hills Drive by the tennis courts across from the Old Town Hall building. Both water amenities were removed within a decade as pollution standards become more strict.)

The story of the post office is more complex, but the slightly oversimplified story is that while Del Webb was not able to talk the residents of Sun City, Florida (a community just south of Ruskin) out of their town name, he was able to talk the postal authorities into letting him have a post office in Del Webb's Sun City provided it was called Sun City Center.

With that compromise behind him, and with all the palm trees and floral arrangements up and down the first few hundred yards of North Pebble Beach Boulevard in place and eight model homes built along Cherry Hills Drive just beyond the Town Hall, he was ready to open the doors and start selling homes.

Only there was one problem. No one had prepared Mr. Webb for one of Florida's little weather tricks. Shortly before Christmas in 1961, there was a real solid freeze for about 24 hours. The result was burst water pipes in the new model homes and, perhaps more importantly, the trees and shrubs and other plantings that adorned the streets and model homes were killed. Of course, all the advertising announcing an opening date had already been placed so there was no way to change the fact that home buyers would be descending on Del Webb's Sun City shortly after Christmas!

The water pipes were easily fixed, but what about the hundreds of dead and broken plants and trees that had to be taken out and replaced? The Hubbell Nursery Company on Route 674 took one look at what was left of the plantings they had installed for Del Webb and came to the rescue. By sending trucks all over southern Florida, beyond where the freeze had killed so many plants, they were able to purchase complete new sets of trees, bushes and shrubs for the homes, flowers and trees for the median on North Pebble Beach. They made the place look terrific again in less than two weeks!

So we're now back to the beginning of our story. Picture those first few days of January, 1962. All the Yankee snowbirds were perched ready to inspect this new concept in retirement living. They knew of Del Webb's reputation for excellent homes and facilities, and they came to see his newest jewel. Yes, 41,000 of them! But how did they all get here? Why along that two-lane dirt Ruskin-Wimauma Road! And, once here, where did they park?

Now picture the situation: the only parking in Del Webb's Sun City was the present parking area along North Pebble Beach Boulevard in front of the Security Patrol, the CA Office, the library and on up to the North Lakes Golf Course building. It's a big lot, but 41,000 people?! It's barely imaginable. It isn't clear how so many cars ever made their way out of Sun City Center either! The bottom line was that a lot of people liked what they saw here in spite of the traffic problems.

Del Webb had requested building approval from the county for fewer than 200 houses at first. The first building lots were on Desert Hills Way, Cypress Place, and then as homes were sold, north to Ojai Avenue, Riviera Drive and over to Augusta Drive. Twelve rental units on North Pebble Beach Drive were being readied. Expanded building approvals were quickly sought as the existing home sites sold out. The townhouses in Amador and Broadmoor Courts were recorded with the county along with more home sites on Hacienda, Tam O'Shanter and Torrey Pines Avenues.

The first residents moved in during April, 1962 -- several families all the same day. The prices they paid ranged from $11,650 for a two-bedroom-one-bath house to $17,350 for a house with three bedrooms and two baths. Real estate taxes would run somewhat under $200 those first few years; water and sewage charges would be under $10 a month. There were no garages - just carports.

Del Webb had learned another wrinkle from his Arizona venture. He insisted that all home owners belong to the volunteer "Civic Association" because it is to this body, he wrote, "that all community facilities are donated by the Del E. Webb Corporation."

Making new friends here was easy. All during 1962, new residents were immediately "one of us" and were automatically inducted as Charter Members of the "Hi Neighbor" Club (the oldest active club still in town as this is written). Once a month the club members would gather on a Wednesday evenings around the Town Hall building next to the outdoor swimming pool for a cookout or, if the weather turned against them, inside the Town Hall in space now occupied by the Weavers Club and the "Little Theatre".

Another wrinkle used by Del Webb for a time was the "Week of Sundays". For only $35, two people could rent a garden apartment here for a week just to look around and use the amenities and, of course, get used to the idea of living in Sun City Center. A round of golf was available to the renters for 5 cents!

The community became the proverbial beehive of activities. A library was started, and a Woman's Club established a Meals-On-Wheels program by 1963. The Men's and the Women's Golf Clubs were established. Within a year, 370 houses had been completed and Del Webb's Sun City, Florida was well along as a premier retirement community. Among the amenities was an aircraft landing strip so potential buyers (and even Mr. Webb himself) could fly in to look things over. At one point, maybe ten years later, there was even brief talk about establishing a portion of Sun City Center as a fly-in community.

By the end of 1963, the sales maps again more than doubled the number of new house sites available. The lots were numbered around South Lake that was slowly filling with water and conceptual plans for a Middle Lake and a North Lake were sketched in. The most notable feature, however, was the enormous "Cypress Lake" that, had it ever been built, would have covered most of the West Del Webb Boulevard area north of Allegheny Drive and would have extended south to what is now the hospital property and even beyond State Road 674 following the path of Cypress Creek. The zigzag shoreline of Cypress Lake would have accommodated hundreds of homes with "Lake Front Exposure" and if one put a boat in the water, a cruise from 19th Avenue to the Little Manatee River might well have been possible.

But it wasn't to be. The Middle and North Lake streets and homes would come first and other construction as far north as Allegheny Drive occupied the developer for a number of years. For instance, there were three new "Church Sites" on the early sales map, generally in the vicinity of the North Course. The United Community Church was formed and, by the time construction was to begin, a site on the northwest corner of La Jolla Avenue and North Pebble Beach Boulevard was the one remaining location still reserved for a church in that area.

In August, 1964, the residents incorporated the Civic Association (CA) that Del Webb had started in order to represent all owners' rights and responsibilities in contracts with the developer, and to maintain the ownership of recreational and communal property. Six years later, the Home Owners Association (HOA) was incorporated to deal specifically with problems of home ownership and external relationships. In 1986, CA and HOA members voted to consolidate into the Sun City Center Community Association (SCCCA). Membership in the CA is now also available to former residents who have maintained their SCCCA membership but who now reside in Lake Towers or in the Courtyards.

But during the mid-1960s, the community developed traditions, clubs and organizations. The volunteer Emergency Squad was organized in 1964. The Spanish Club was organized in 1965 and grew to a membership of over 600 with sponsored tours and entertainment. By 1967, development around North Lake was largely complete and, under the leadership of R. H. Wolthorn's committee, at Christmas time the lake shore was ringed with luminari. The tradition spread to other lakes and has continued now for 30 years in town. In 1971 the Mini-Bus system was started and, within a year, the volunteer fire department was organized. Through all of this, Del Webb provided legal and political support, and newsletters that gave the community a unifying voice.

By 1971, however, it was becoming apparent to the Del Webb organization that its Florida venture was not developing as quickly as they had hoped. A combination of economic events on the national and international scene had slowed retirement home investment by the target audience to a trickle. During the summer of 1971 the King's Inn was destroyed by a fire that consumed everything except the 10-room motel at its northern end. In August, a letter was sent to every home owner here announcing that Del Webb planned no further development here. The property would be sold. The roads (marked today by blue street signs) and the bottoms of the larger lakes of Sun City Center were given to the county. The Civic Association took over management of the Town Hall building.

After Del Webb

It was at this time that two Florida developers, Gerald Gould and Jim Walter, both well known in the house-building industry, had combined to form the W-G Development Corporation. With loans from the First National Bank of Chicago (FNBC) they bought out the Del Webb Corporation's interests in Sun City Center in early 1972.

W-G brought a new idea to the community. In order to raise capital for further development here, W-G sold its land on the south side of SR 674 west of the developing parts of Sun City Center to the Kings Point Housing Corporation of Delray Beach, Florida. Again, it was FNBC that provided the necessary funds to the Kings Point organization to secure this new holding here. The property they bought would become known as Kings Point West for a time, then Sun City Center West and, at this writing, simply Kings Point.

One of their earliest moves was to gain county and state approval for the community as a Planned Unit Development. This meant that future developers would face great odds if tempted to construct other than retirement housing or to make any significant changes to the plan laid out at that time. Changes would be possible, but they would have to be aired in public meetings before being permitted by the government agencies involved.

In addition, W-G decided to open development of its parcel at the southern end of its property. The plan was to offer 5 to 10-acre properties and up-scale homes in the area called Sundance along the Little Manatee River. At the same time, just south of State Road 674, W-G began developing both the Simmons Lake home sites with newly designed architecture, and the St. Andrews subdivision with more traditional home styles.

Unfortunately for W-G, now being managed by Gould, and for the Kings Point West interests, managed by Rapaport, several economic factors converged to make their businesses fail. There was a gasoline shortage that grounded the snowbirds and caused a resulting depression in real estate sales. On top of that, the expense of simultaneous building at Sundance and at Sun City Center was too much for the W-G (Gould), and sales at Kings Point (Rapaport) were poor too. FNBC finally called in its mortgages and established a new development company called W-G (FNBC).

Once FNBC gained control, they contracted with Punta Gorda Isles, Inc. to manage the Kings Point property and the further development of Sun City Center. This meant that the Civic Association was no longer dealing directly with the developer. However, during its first year here, the losses to W-G (FNBC) amounted to some $4 million and in late 1975, FNBC terminated its contract with Punta Gorda Isles, Inc. They brought in Stanley Whitcomb, Jr., an experienced developer in the southeast to be the Chief Executive Officer for FNBC, and continued its presence here as W-G Development Corporation. Among Whitcomb's first moves was to re-establish direct contact with the Civic Association and to honor the word and deed of the original Del Webb retirement community concept.

During Whitcomb's administration, W-G met its obligations to construct additional facilities for the Civic Association that had been promised years earlier in accordance with population growth in the community. In 1977 the J. Harvey Gallent wing was added, thus nearly doubling the indoor space for arts and crafts. By 1980 the library and Civic Association buildings were in place. Each had been a model display home located on the site of the present Eckerd Drug Store on the southwest corner of State Road 674 and South Pebble Beach Boulevard.

Under Whitcomb, a period of success and good feelings dominated. The Kings Inn, that had been rebuilt shortly after W-G (Gould) took over, was re-named the Sun City Center Inn. By 1982, the new post office building was dedicated in its present site, and the hospital was opened for service. Buyers were beginning to move into the Bluewater, Cypress View and Fort Duquesna areas, and the Caloosa development was getting started. On the south side of SR-674, the Club Manor and St. Andrews Estates were filling up.

But there was a dark cloud over us. When FNBC took over the two developments, the FDIC ruled that the bank must divest itself of the real estate it owned here within five years. Thus by the late 70s, the property was again up for sale, and the (Victor H.) Palmieri and Company, in partnership with seven pension funds, bought the FNBC holding and placed Jay Krinsky as CEO of the new venture then known as W-G (Palmieri). Krinsky had recently restructured the bankrupt Penn Central RR by selling off assets, not by developing what was owned.

It shortly became apparent to the Civic Association that the new ownership, later named Sunmark Corporation, showed little intention of abiding by the wording of the original Del Webb contract. It called for new community buildings for population growth beyond 5,000. In 1982, the CA instituted rules stopping sales of its memberships once the 5,000 population was reached. This meant that new residents whose number exceeded the CA limit would be denied access to the pools, the library and all the other amenities in Sun City Center.

This action by the CA caused a sharp decline in new home sales and within a short time brought W-G (Palmieri) to a bargaining that created the "1984 Agreement" -- a contract with the developer that, in part, advanced $1 million for construction of Community Hall on South Pebble Beach Boulevard. Thereafter, Sunmark sold large parcels of land that were outside the age-restricted areas of the 1984 Agreement, among them the Villages of Cypress Creek.

But Stanley Whitcomb still felt ties to Sun City Center and largely through his efforts the successful developer of Walden Lakes, Al Hoffman, bought out the Sunmark interests here, including both Kings Point and the Sun City Center community defined in the 1984 Agreement.

Expansion was immediate with Greenbrier, Fairview, Wedgewood and the Caloosa Lakes areas being opened. Hoffman personally involved himself in community information sessions, published a regular newsletter and, to emphasize the beauty and ambiance of this retirement community, was instrumental in obtaining state funds for the 1990 beautification of the SR 674 median.

In 1990, the Sun City Center Corporation received approval from the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners to modify the Master Land Use Plan. Perhaps the most visible change was the addition of a 36 holes of golf to the existing facilities here. Shortly thereafter, the corporation changed its name to Florida Design Communities, Inc. (FDC)

Recent landmarks in the development of Sun City Center include the celebration in 1996 of the joining of Del Webb Boulevard West with the new Del Webb Boulevard East. The opening of a new Executive golf course at the northeast corner of the town was most welcome also in 1996 as was the groundbreaking in 1997 for the "Courtyards at Caloosa" to be fashioned and operated in much the same manner as the Courtyards facility finished in 1996 near the Lake Towers property.

At a Community Association membership meeting held during the autumn of 1997, FDC announced that they would be continuing their building in Sun City Center (and at Kings Point too) for the next 15-20 years. They plan to develop some property just to the east of the Interstate Highway 75 to contain model homes, a hotel and other accouterments to support their long-range building plans.

When Del Webb first visited this property, he had in mind a development of 5,000 retirees conveniently surrounding their own all-purpose recreation - shopping - service center, and bordered by a much larger development of homes, schools and industrial sites. His early vision has long since blurred, but first-time visitors continue to get the immediate impression of this community's neat layout and attractive amenities. Many of us have watched its continual change. The vigilance of the Community Association members and the dedicated efforts of their elected leaders are the keys to maintaining the safe, comfortable and active retirement lifestyle we all visualized on our first visit to Sun City Center.

This narration was prepared by John Bowker in part from the records of the Sun City Center Historical Society. Special thanks to Boyd Neuborne, Phil Lange and Janet Wilson. Readers interest and contributions to the collection of documents is solicited.